“Hundreds of thousands of New York City households depend on government benefits to avoid eviction and homelessness. Yet countless households are experiencing ongoing and systemic delays when attempting to apply or renew their benefits.”

Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit

Staffers with the city’s Department of Social Services and Human Resources Administration at a Council hearing in August on benefits processing wait times.

In the midst of her life’s most challenging chapter, Ms. S, a resilient 55-year-old accountant from Washington Heights, found herself in a situation she could have never anticipated. A debilitating stroke left her partially paralyzed and hindered her ability to put food on the table or make ends meet. Ms. S found herself jobless and without income for an entire year as she waited for her Social Security benefits to kick in. When she applied for SNAP benefits, her application encountered a 45 day-delay, after which she received a notice from the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) indicating that she missed her mandatory interview—which was not the case—leaving her panicked and unsure of where to turn.

Or take the case of Ms. V, a single mother of five children in Harlem whose landlord moved to evict her after her husband, the sole earner in the family, tragically passed away. Ms. V struggled to secure employment while caring for her young toddlers and applied for the Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS) program, which, if approved, would clear her rent arrears and provide ongoing rental assistance. However, she has now been waiting two months for HRA to process her application, growing more and more fearful of losing her home for herself and her children as each day passes.

These are just some of the many stories of delays that struggling New Yorkers face when attempting to access live-saving benefits from the City’s Human Resource Administration, including SNAP, Public Assistance, One Shot Deals, FHEPS and CityFHEPS. Such delays have devastating consequences for our city’s most vulnerable people. 

Every week in New York City, new tenants are being sued by their landlord because of missing, delayed shelter payments or improper discontinuance of a Public Assistance, FHEPS or CityFHEPS case. Why is it that the programs that were created to help vulnerable people access affordable housing are the ones that end up pushing these same marginalized tenants into eviction proceedings?

At Legal Services NYC, we see our clients struggle to afford groceries to feed their families or make rent to keep a roof over their heads. Food insecurity is on the rise in New York City, up to 10.8 percent last year compared to 7.3 percent in 2021, and even higher for children at 13.4 percent. Statewide, nearly 2.9 million New York households rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to eat.

The city is also home to nearly 500,000 rent burdened households, struggling to keep up with rent as prices soar to the highest in recent history. Hundreds of thousands of New York City households depend on government benefits to avoid eviction and homelessness. Yet countless households are experiencing ongoing and systemic delays when attempting to apply or renew their benefits with HRA, with no signs of improvement.

According to the latest Mayor’s Management Report, less than 30 percent of Public Assistance applications and 40 percent of SNAP applications were processed within the required 30 days timeline. While some applicants receive decisions well past the required time frames, others never receive a response. 

RELATED READING: NYC Failing to Process Most Food Stamp, Cash Benefit Applications on Time

HRA’s shortcomings extend beyond mere delays, turning the process of accessing public benefits into an ordeal that disregards fundamental human rights and social justice. Numerous issues mar the system, among them benefits applications that are mistakenly closed without notice; benefits denials erroneously claiming that the applicant failed to provide required documents or missed deadlines; a glitchy and inaccessible AccessHRA website that often ends up making it more difficult for New Yorkers in need to access government benefits; and hours-long phone wait times.

Although the Mayor’s Management Report indicates that “HRA is taking aggressive action to fill critical vacancies, invest in technology, and implement process improvements to improve timeliness,” we have yet to see the fruits of such a plan. By when will New Yorkers be able to get their benefits within 30 days? What substantial steps have been put in place to comply with a court order to eliminate the backlog by March 2024?

New Yorkers are hungry and suffering. Every day, advocates in my organization send follow-up after follow-up to HRA on behalf of our clients, many of which go unanswered. The current state of affairs is unacceptable. Our clients are in need and HRA has the duty to assist.

It’s time for the Adams Administration to take immediate steps to help struggling New Yorkers access life-saving benefits by, first, approving the necessary budget to fill critical vacant positions at HRA to process applications and clear the backlog.

The New York Department of Social Services (DSS) should also commit to creating and publishing a corrective action plan to resolve the systemic delays in processing public benefits applications within the requisite 30-day timeline, as well as create a Direct Access Line phone number for advocates and community partners to help address and facilitate correction of case errors. 

The department should also share monthly monitoring reports with community partners representing clients with the most to lose to ensure the agency is complying with its protocols, corrective action plans, and applicable state or federal laws and regulations. These steps would go a long way in protecting the safety, well-being, and dignity of struggling New Yorkers. 

At a time when low-income families are struggling to find stability among post-pandemic financial hardships, deepening economic gaps, and racial disparities, the Adams Administration must move quickly to improve and expand access to public benefits that help stabilize marginalized New Yorkers, not shrink or neglect these services.

Hungry families on the brink of homelessness cannot afford to wait. 

Jenna Coudin is a staff attorney in the Government Benefits Unit in Legal Services NYC’s Manhattan Office.