Mayor Adams’ administration has stiffed thousands of low-income New Yorkers on their food stamps and cash assistance benefits, leaving them in a state of “hunger and immense distress,” sometimes for months on end, according to a lawsuit filed late Friday.
Under federal and state law, the city’s Human Resources Administration must process applications for food benefits and cash aid within 30 days. The food benefits are issued via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, and the monetary benefits come from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Safety Net Assistance programs.
But the Manhattan Federal Court lawsuit charges that as of late last month, roughly 28,000 such aid applications were overdue, some going back as far as September — meaning roughly half of all claims before HRA aren’t being processed on time in alleged violation of the laws.
The suit names Adams’ administration as a whole as well as Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins and Human Resources Administrator Lisa Fitzpatrick as defendants.
The action was brought by four New Yorkers with outstanding welfare claims, but seeks class action status to represent every overdue applicant in the city. Legal Aid Society lawyer Katie Kelleher, who represents the four plaintiffs, said the impetus for that is it could convince the court to force Adams’ administration to come into 100% compliance with the 30-day rule.
Kelleher said the processing delays are the result of steep staffing shortages at HRA and a byzantine application system.
The real-life consequences of the bureaucratic snags are “awful,” Kelleher told the Daily News, describing Legal Aid clients who have had to skip meals, only eat potatoes for days or forgo paying rent in order to afford food.
“I don’t know that this is being treated as the emergency that it is,” she said.
One of Kelleher’s clients is Maria Forest, a 71-year-old retired home care attendant who lives alone in a Brooklyn apartment with a $605 monthly rent, according to a sworn declaration filed in court with the lawsuit. She’s on a fixed Social Security income that clocks in at just over $1,000 per month.
Forest recently told the Daily News her monthly $281 in SNAP food stamps got discounted without notice in October even though she had mailed paperwork two months earlier to recertify her benefits — using the same form she’s successfully used for years.
She said she has repeatedly tried to contact HRA since her benefits lapsed to no avail. On some days, she said she has called the agency’s welfare hotline 20 times without ever getting through to someone who can help.
Forest, who spoke to The News in Polish via a translator because of her limited English, is diabetic and awaiting surgery for a spinal condition that sharply limits her mobility.
Because she’s not receiving SNAP, she said she has had to stop buying an over-the-counter painkiller for her spinal condition in order to afford food, worsening her discomfort. She said she has also had to modify her diet to eat cheaper food that is not conducive to her diabetes.
“When I came to America, I didn’t even think a situation like this could happen. I’ve always thought of America as a law abiding country, where rules and laws are respected,” said Forest, who immigrated to the U.S. over two decades ago. “They aren’t just not helping people; they are harming people … I worked for this country, I paid my taxes, and now they are stealing from me. It makes me feel like nothing makes sense, it makes me feel like I don’t want to live anymore.”
Another plaintiff, Larysa Nazarenko, is a Ukrainian citizen who was paroled into the U.S. in August after fleeing the war in her home country. She’s living in Brooklyn with her son.
Nazarenko, 62, was granted monthly food stamp benefits in December after waiting nearly four months for her application to be processed, she wrote in a sworn declaration appended to the lawsuit.
But she wrote she still hasn’t been approved for cash assistance benefits, even though she applied in September.
“The lack of cash assistance has had a dramatic impact on me. I am from Kiev and had to evacuate quickly. I had recently retired and was getting ready to apply for my pension before fleeing,” she wrote, adding that the only income she currently has is about $380 per month in food stamps. “I have depleted my savings and have no money in my bank account and no way to meet my basic needs.”
A Law Department spokesman said the Adams administration ”will review the litigation.“
”The city will continue to support New Yorkers in need,” the spokesman added.
The lawsuit comes as Adams is pushing to cut staffing at HRA.
Unveiled earlier this month, Adams’ first budget bid for the 2024 fiscal year proposed permanently eliminating 773 vacant positions at the agency, amounting to a 7.6% agency-wide head count reduction.
“Some will argue that vacancy reduction results in agencies not being able to do their jobs. Don’t believe them,” Adams said at City Hall on Jan. 12.
Kelleher countered that Adams’ suggested cuts would exacerbate the processing delays for the food stamp and cash assistance initiatives.
The HRA public assistance unit tasked with managing the program already had a 14.5% staff vacancy rate as of October, according to a report from City Comptroller Brad Lander’s office, and Kelleher said the focus should be on filling empty positions, not eliminating them.
“Any kind of cut can’t be okay,” she said. “Obviously business as usual is not working, and you have an obligation by federal law to abide by these deadlines.”
An Adams administration official said the belt-tightening is justified because of “ongoing fiscal and economic headwinds“ facing the city. The official also said the Department of Social Services, which oversees HRA, still has more than 1,700 budgeted vacancies it “can use to fill critical positions.“
The lawsuit alleges another issue underpinning the dilemma at HRA is a “broken” application system for benefits urgently in need of technological fixes.
The lawsuit alleges the system has terminated benefits for some people without informing them, Forest among them. In other instances, the lawsuit charges clients have gotten important calls about their benefits from HRA phone numbers that are blocked as spam by their cellphone providers.
Kelleher said the city should also petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds a large chunk of welfare benefits, to provide waivers for how often New Yorkers need to reapply for their food stamps and other assistance. Currently, they generally have to recertify their benefits once a year, but Kelleher said it would become easier for city officials to manage workload if that time period is extended.
“They are putting us in stressful and dangerous situations,” said Forest. “Someone needs to do something about it.”
Proud Boy FBI informant testifies to knowing nothing of planned Jan. 6 attack
Advocates crowd NY Capitol as budget negotiations continue and deadline looms
Mayor Adams floats barring state Liquor Authority from NYC amid clash over embattled Brooklyn venue’s license