WELFARE GETS A BREATHER

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Just a few blocks from the Richmond Job Center, the office of attorney Chris Lamb, head of Staten Island’s Legal Aid office, has been full of confused clients unable to get service at the job center four weeks after the Twin Tower collapse. Richmond is one of five centers citywide that is still without communication to a central welfare database in Albany.

State and city officials claim the five centers–three in Brooklyn, one in Queens and the one in Staten Island–are functioning using emergency measures such as couriers delivering paperwork, but observers like Lamb say they’re barely operational. “What we’re hearing from our clients is that they’re being told that they can’t file applications,” said Lamb. “Others who did file are being told they can’t be processed. People with current cases are being told their benefits can’t be adjusted. It’s not just an isolated problem.”

While the city waits for the computer system to get back up and running, the Human Resources Administration has made some administrative changes to try to keep congestion at the centers down to a minimum. Last week, the agency began calling in the 36,000 families whose federal benefits are set to end on December 31 to schedule a re-assessment of their cases. The session will consist of a final push to urge recipients to get a job followed by an application process for safety net, a new state-funded benefit system. Rather than require two appointments, as was originally mandated, HRA has combined the whole process into one visit. With thousands of newly unemployed–115,000, are projected to date, according to City Comptroller Alan Hevesi–applying for public assistance, the decision to cut down the process is a welcome break, say advocates.

Noted Lisa Pearlstein, a Legal Services attorney in north Brooklyn, home to two centers without data lines, job centers are already “places of total confusion.”