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Low-income New Yorkers seeking cash assistance at the NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA) face a myriad of barriers to public assistance. As the following stories demonstrate, accessing and maintaining benefits at HRA is difficult or impossible for many individuals. Poor treatment, inadequate medical screening, and bureaucratic challenges are just a few of the major problems within the system. These barriers are not just occurring in New York City. Throughout the State, barriers to welfare have resulted in advocacy and lawsuits by organizations like the Empire Justice Center, the Legal Services and Legal Aid Society, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. HRA has been slow to respond to concerns, but did attend a recent Economic Justice and Social Welfare Network meeting to hear from providers and advocates.
Browse the following stories to learn how these issues affect the lives of people here in New York City, and take a moment to share them with your elected officials, also.
You can also download PDF versions of some of the stories here.
You can learn more about the Access to Assistance Campaign, which seeks to address obstacles like those listed below, by visiting the main web page.
Annie is a disabled veteran who faced eviction from her home after she lost her job and was unable to maintain her benefits.
Proposed legislation would help disabled individuals like Annie to secure and maintain their benefits. The Treating Practitioner bill would require consideration of an applicant's own physician's medical opinion in determining eligibility for benefits. Sponsored by Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright and Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, the bill is numbered A2957/S1326.
Chandra also faced eviction from her home, and was lucky enough to have support from benefits access specialist at a nonprofit service provider.
Unlike Chandra, most applicants do not have the support of community based organizations or legal representation. The Access Campaign is working on a bill that would require welfare offices to post "Basic Rights" posters so that people applying for or receiving public assistance are informed of their legal rights.
Wendy lost her job at a time when she had almost earned her Bachelor's degree.
Proposed legislation would help college students receiving public assistance to attend school while mostly working part time. Sponsored by Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright and Senator Velmanette Montgomery, the bill is numbered A2472/S2323.
Veda was working part-time but still wasn't earning enough and needed food stamps.
Donna was laid of from her job, and used up all her savings.
"David" is employed, but receives welfare assistance because his wages are too low to make ends meet. Though HRA's stated policy is to fully encourage employment, HRA required him to attend 7 appointments in 2 months during times that conflicted with his work hours.
David has two children - one with severe depression and the other mental health issues. On top of his job, he regularly attends meetings with the Board of Education to discuss his children's situation. Constant meetings at HRA distract David from his job and his children's educational needs.
"Yvette" received federal Social Security disability benefits but was beginning to feel healthier so she decided that she would try to work. She got a job, and stopped receiving her disability benefits. Unfortunately, her health deteriorated again. She and her boss agreed that she should stop her employment. Because she no longer had income, she soon fell behind in her rent and bills. She has two children and was very anxious about losing her home, so she applied for and began receiving welfare assistance. She then heard from Social Security that they would place her back on federal disability benefits. She informed HRA and asked them close her welfare case - as she was required to do.
Unfortunately she was still behind in rent and was advised that she was eligible for a "one shot" emergency rent grant from HRA. She went to the HRA Center to apply but was told that HRA couldn't help her because her case was still technically open - HRA had not done the paperwork needed to close her case.
"William" has a severe learning disability and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of childhood abuse. He reads at a first grade level. .His ability to navigate basic processes is very limited. For example, he didn't know how to fill in a calendar with appointments he had. The non-profit service provider who was assisting him with his case explained to him several times that she was going to postpone an important appointment that was scheduled for the next day. When he left her office, he asked her what time he should meet her the next day, clearly not able to understand what she had just told him repeatedly.
William needed this appointment since he was being sanctioned because he missed his workfare (Work Experience Program - WEP) assignment. Right after he missed the assignment, he asked the worker at his mandatory job search program to call HRA to let them know that he had forgotten the assignment, but intended to return. Though the office told him that they had called HRA, apparently they did not do it or HRA did not document the call. As a result he was sanctioned for "non-compliance" and lost his only income.
As a result of his sanction, William had to submit a request for a Fair Hearing - a process which allows applicants to appeal HRA's decision with the State. He waited for the notice of the Fair Hearing date to arrive in the mail but didn't receive it after many weeks. He finally got through to someone at the Fair Hearing phone number and was told that they had defaulted him because he did not show up on the date of the hearing. William explained that he had been waiting for the letter but had never received it. The Fair Hearing workers started a new hearing request for him but it was past the 60 days that he had allowed for the court to hear his case and get his sanctioned lifted. As a result, he lost his benefits.
In 2009, "Carl" a 31-year-old man, was living on the streets. He tried to apply for public assistance and food stamps at HRA, but workers there told him that he couldn't apply because he didn't have a birth certificate or ID. However, he did have a social security card which is all that should have been required to apply for food stamps.
HRA is required to assist applicants in securing other identification, but Carl needed to get assistance from a non-profit group to learn where he could obtain a photo ID and birth certificate. HRA failed to do so.
Non-profit agencies are often forced to use resources to provide basic services or information that HRA is required to provide.
"Nadia" lives in Brooklyn with her two children - Celia, age 3 months, and Jamie, age 2. When she was pregnant with Jamie, Nadia had medical complications that caused her to lose her job. These hardships caused Nadia to apply for public assistance and also resulted in Nadia suffering from long episodes of depression. Although she had medical proof, her illness made it very difficult to get to all of her welfare appointments with the right papers. As a result, Nadia was sanctioned for not complying with work requirements. This cut her monthly welfare benefits by 1/3, from $691 to $463 – to meet all of her families needs, and reduced her food stamps. It took her almost six months to find legal help and to make it through the hearing process to win the rest of her benefits back.
"Mark," is 44 years old and had applied for public assistance and food stamps. Though he met the eligibility requirements, he received a denial notice that stated he had missed an appointment with an investigator. However, no specific date or description of the appointment was given. In fact, Mark had complied with all of the appointments. He ended up having to re-apply three times before finally getting approved for benefits. Unfortunately, his problems with HRA didn't end once his case was opened. Later on, his food stamps were wrongly discontinued and he experienced problems with his public assistance benefits. Ultimately, he had to ask for a fair hearing against HRA to resolve the problems; he won and was given retroactive benefits for welfare and food stamps.
Just like Mark, applicants at HRA routinely are denied assistance for unclear or improper reasons. Those who are improperly denied assistance are forced to seek recourse through the State Fair Hearing process but far greater simply don't receive benefits.
"Annette" can't read or write in any language, has a first grade education level and very limited English proficiency -- limitations known to HRA. She has had a very difficult life that included sexual abuse in childhood. As an adult violence continued to plague her. She secured Orders of Protection against several individuals who were threatening her, including death threats.
Since she was diagnosed with severe depression and schizo-affective disorder, HRA required that she apply for the federal SSI disability program. She complied. She was also required to attend alcohol abuse treatment, which she did regularly until those who had threatened her were released from jail. Fearing for her safety, she moved, and avoided places she regularly frequented, including the program. As a result, she received a sanction notice from HRA because she stopped attending the treatment program.
She visited the HRA center about 20 days after receipt of the notice to explain why she stopped going. She brought a document from the District Attorney's office showing her situation, but HRA refused to review it. She was simply told that after 10 days from the sanction notice date, they would do nothing do to help her. Workers at HRA didn't review her files to see that she was a disabled individual applying for federal SSI disability.
All HRA did for Annette was provide a phone number to request a Fair Hearing on the matter. She called the number for several days but couldn't get through. HRA didn't describe any other other ways to file for a Fair Hearing with the State. Finally her brother determined that she could visit the Administrative Hearing offices to place the request. Unfortunately, by this time 60 days had elapsed. At her hearing HRA argued that the statute of limitations had passed for her to ask for a hearing. As a result, the Administrative Law Judge could not rule on the merits of her case.
She was left without housing and cash assistance.
"Andrea," a 34-year-old, Spanish-speaking female was denied public assistance due to an alleged missed appointment. She had attended the appointment assigned on the notification she had received; the problem arose because HRA had sent her another woman's notice. She had never received a notice containing information about her own appointment. She did attend what she thought was her appointment, though it mistakenly was another person's appointment. She had to request a fair hearing to get her case reopened and to receive benefits.