Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
New York, NY –
Federal stimulus money will bring an estimated $841 million in extra food stamp benefits to New York City. This means that starting in April each one of the 1.3 million New Yorkers who use food stamps will see a 13 percent increase every month. WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez visited one non-profit center trying to get more people enrolled in the federal program:
REPORTER: The Bread and Life Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen is one of the few non-government places people can come apply for food stamps. It's bustling on a recent Tuesday morning.
The building is new and modern and a skylight brightens the space. Upstairs, a team of caseworkers are either busy with clients or waiting for them to show up. Rosemary Irizzary screens people to see what benefits they qualify for. She says recently she's noticed more homelessness and unemployment:
IRIZZARY: Last week I had like six people that were laid off that had big mortgages. They were looking for help like in how to pay their mortgages and how to keep their family going.
REPORTER: According to the non-profit, each month their clientele grows. A spread sheet shows in November 7,000 people were served. In December, the number jumped to 17,000. Irizzary says many people don't realize they qualify for federal assistance, especially food stamps.
On the other side of a divider, sits a young caseworker named Vanessa Mendez. Her 9:30 food stamp appointment isn't showing up.
Mendez is part of a pilot program that allows non-profits to share the city's social service database in order to help enroll people in food stamps. The setting is supposed to be more personal than local food stamp offices.
MENDEZ: We're nice. You know it doesn't make them feel like they're getting something that they shouldn't be. So they feel pretty comfortable at least that's how it seems.
REPORTER: While Mendez's clients are no shows today, downstairs in a cafeteria furnished with what looks like Ikea tables and chairs, there are plenty of potential food stamp candidates. Concepcion Gonyawa and Nuris Ditren are waiting in a long lunch line. The two Dominican women said they are legal residents. Ditren says she tried to apply for food stamps but was told she didn't qualify.
DITREN: I already checked it out because I've only been here a year and three months I don't qualify. That's what they told me because of the short time I have living here.
REPORTER: Green card holders must be in the country five years before they are eligible for public benefits.
REPORTER: Anthony Turner is behind the women in line. He says he comes to the soup kitchen two or three times a week, plus he gets groceries from the food pantry and he receives monthly food stamps:
REPORTER: Are the food stamps enough?
TURNER: Not at all... How long do they last you? Honestly, about a week and a half if I'm lucky.
REPORTER: Turner says he works at Sleepy's and gets paid $10 an hour. The 13 percent increase approved by the federal government will go to him and all other current and future food stamp recipients. While Mayor Bloomberg is glad working people such as Turner are getting help, he's refused to allow unemployed single people who won't take part in a city run welfare to work program to receive food stamps beyond three months. On WOR, he told radio host John Gambling he believes in helping those who struggle and work.
BLOOMBERG: You can call me a liberal or anything else, I'm in favor of doing that. But the people who don't who sit back and say hey society owes me, we're not going to let the kids starve but the adults, you know, you don't want to work, you don't want to work.
REPORTER: But the federal government has extended food stamps for single non-working people. Still Bloomberg has twice refused to change the policy in New York City. Elected officials have been pushing him to re-think his stance. They argue that with unemployment numbers so high, there are few jobs to be had. City councilman Bill De Blasio calls Bloomberg’s stance an ideological hangup.
DEBLASIO :In many other areas the mayor has been very good at getting people on food stamps. A number of his other policies have been very progressive in this area, so I don't know why the administration clings to this it doesn't make a lot of sense to me it never has but in this moment it makes much much less sense given the depth of the economic crisis.
REPORTER: De Blasio maintains the city is giving up tens of millions of dollars but the city strongly disputes that. According to the Human Resources Administration, the agency that administers food stamps, last year 500 single people were cut off from food stamps for not following work rules. They calculate that loss at about $750,000. Plus, HRA says the work rules are not onerous - a single person would be required to put in five hours of unpaid work per week to keep getting the benefit.
REPORTER: Back at Bread and Life in Brooklyn, Supervisor Janette Mercedes worries about keeping up with the demand for meals and groceries. She says several smaller church based pantries and soup kitchens have not been able to keep up.
MERCEDES: I've noticed a lot of those food pantries are closing because either they don't have food or they don't have volunteers.
REPORTER: For now, there's enough pop tarts, cereal and tuna to fill dozens of bags. And hundreds of people will leave with food and come back for more when it runs out.
For WNYC, I'm Cindy Rodriguez