FINNICKY PHONE LINES LEAVE SOME ON WELFARE STRANDED

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In the wake of last week’s disaster, the city’s human services have been scrambling to keep up. With phone service still spotty around the city, food stamp access has been difficult since they are only distributed through automated teller machines, many of which have been down since last Tuesday. Paper “stamps” no longer exist as such: “There are no food stamp coupons anymore,” noted Wendy Bach, director of the Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project at the Urban Justice Center. Bach has heard about glitches with the automated machines at supermarkets, particularly in Brooklyn and Queens.

State law requires that cashiers provide written vouchers to their customers when the electronic benefit transfer card machine fails to work. But even the vouchers were posing problems. Usually, retailers call a toll-free number to verify the amount of money available in a customer’s benefit account, but with finicky phone lines, that was often impossible. So on Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture agreed to reimburse vendors for up to $25 in food costs per day for every welfare recipient who could not access the system. The USDA planned to re-evaluate the alternative plan early this week. To participate, vendors must call the USDA and set up an account.

“We really encourage vendors to help out by signing onto this voucher system,” said Carlos Rodriguez, project director for Food Force, a food stamp outreach project of Community Food Resource Center.

The city’s welfare database also faltered for a few days last week following the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, the site of the Verizon offices responsible for the database. Advocates say difficulties were widespread in Brooklyn and Queens, where caseworkers were unable to enter new welfare cases into the system or update existing ones, but most centers in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island were relatively unaffected by the system crash. By Friday morning, the city Human Resources Administration (HRA) said, the Welfare Management System was back up and running.

“There are some spots with problems, but it’s pretty much OK,” said Rodriguez, while HRA says things have been fine all along: “All of our centers out in the field have been open. In seven days, I haven’t heard of there being a problem with the computers,” said agency spokesperson Debra Sproles.

Meanwhile, some welfare advocates worry about the status of their clients’ cases over the next couple of weeks. Because the computer system automatically closes a case if time-sensitive information, like an appointment, is not entered, advocates are trying to have such deadlines extended for a couple of months. “They’re considering waivers for people who missed appointments and things like that,” said Pawling.

Ultimately, the real problems will emerge as the week progresses and advocates, many forced from their offices, reopen their doors to their constituents. “Later in the week, once advocates have gotten to their clinics and intake sites, we’ll have a much better idea of what’s going on,” said Bach. Rodriguez of CFRC says that there are concerns on the horizon: “We’re trying to figure out what steps to take as far as for those who’ve lost their jobs and are going to be in need of services in the coming weeks.” But for now, says Bach, “I wouldn’t say that anyone knows what’s going on.”