City Welfare Offices: The Sound of Silence

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Facing a litany of lawsuits held over from the days of the Giuliani administration, Bloomberg’s attorneys went to court for one of its first First Amendment cases last week. While the judge has yet to rule, the new administration said it hopes to continue the practices that got its predecessor into court in the first place.

In March 2000, Make the Road By Walking, a community group in Bushwick, filed a lawsuit against then Human Resources Administration Commissioner Jason Turner for prohibiting advocates from going into the city’s job centers to distribute literature and educate welfare applicants about the system and their rights.

Irania Sanchez, the plaintiff in the lawsuit of Sanchez v. Turner, decided to appeal her caseworker’s decision to revoke her Medicaid after she got some advice from one of Make the Road’s advocates.

The groups’ advocates–many of whom are on public assistance–had been thrown out of the welfare office waiting rooms too many times, said Make the Road’s co-director Andrew Friedman. So with the help of the Brennan Center for Justice, they took the case to federal court in Manhattan, charging that the city’s actions violate advocates’ First Amendment right to free speech.

“The city wants to suppress constitutionally-protected advocacy,” said Brennan Center attorney Laura Abel. And she thinks her case has real precedent: In the 1970s, the Albany Welfare Rights Organization brought a similar suit against Albany County–they won access to the welfare offices.

City attorneys insist the advocates do not have a case, and have resisted Abel’s efforts to settle. “A government office is not a park, it’s not a sidewalk, it’s not a public forum,” attorney Janice Birnbaum argued before Judge Allen Schwartz last Thursday.

Advocates can accompany specific clients into the welfare offices, she added, and advocacy groups that hold a contract with the city to do anti-eviction work are also allowed to set up shop in the centers. “HRA doesn’t have to provide general access to all,” said Birnbaum.

Some of those contracted groups, however, say they could use the help of advocates like Make the Road. “There are many thousands of people who don’t fall under our contract specifications who still need help,” said Don Friedman of Community Food Resource Center. Recipients who don’t get help navigating the welfare system, he said, might not know they’re entitled to other benefits like Medicaid, or to an interpreter who speaks their language.

Besides, argued Abel, “When people have information and know how the system works, it’s actually easier for the [HRA] workers to do their job.” She expects Judge Schwartz to rule on the case within the next few weeks.

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