HEARINGS MAY GET A LITTLE FAIRER

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Anticipating a spike in confusion as the five-year time limit for welfare benefits expires in December, a group of legal advocates will be offering help to New Yorkers who’ve been cut off the rolls right where they plead their cases.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance recently gave the green light for Project FAIR (Fair hearing Assistance, Information and Referrals) to staff an information table outside the agency’s hearing rooms for New Yorkers contesting welfare cut-offs. Since about 95 percent of people showing up without legal representation for these proceedings, known as “fair hearings,” the state conceded the clients need help.

“So many people go down there inadequately protected and informed of their rights,” said Don Friedman, acting coordinator of Project FAIR and senior policy analyst at the Community Food Resource Center. Often, the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) will close a case if clients miss an appointment or fail to comply with work requirements, said Friedman, situations for which they should have recourse. The table, to be staffed by trained attorneys, will begin operation this October in the reception area of 14 Boerum Place in Brooklyn, headquarters for the OTDA hearings.

Friedman and others hope their new resource center will help more clients get their due process. Of the 166,000 requests made for hearings last year, only about half were ultimately heard by a judge. “What got us the most upset was learning that HRA was going into the waiting room and trying to persuade people to withdraw their hearing request,” said Friedman. When that happens, he said, “People accept less than they could get.”

HRA did not return calls seeking comment.

When cases do get before a judge, however, the success rate is high: The state overturns over 80 percent of HRA’s decisions to deny benefits, according to OTDA. With more information out there, said Feldman, that number could be even higher.

Modeled on resource centers now stationed in housing and family courts, the FAIR program lacks one thing the others have: funding. It takes about $300,000 a year to run the five tables in housing court, says Citywide Task Force on Housing. For now, FAIR will rely on volunteers-two training sessions have been scheduled for September-and hope that a request for funds from Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields comes through.