Continental US / Pennsylvania

The Waiting Room

Since I moved to Pittsburgh almost one month ago I have been swimming in narratives of social justice. The program I am a part of, Repair the World, is a Jewish nonprofit that focuses on education justice and food justice in several cities across the US. I am an Education Justice Fellow, but many of the food insecurity issues also resonate deeply with me.

One month ago we moved into a newly renovated house in East Liberty. The story of our house, in some ways, parallels the story of the whole neighborhood. Pittsburgh has a total of 90 neighborhoods and East Liberty is among them. East Liberty used to be an overwhelmingly low-income area. Within the past decade or so, the market arrived and with it the gentrification of the landscape. There are segments of the neighborhood that are very solidly mixed-income. There are also  remaining pockets of poverty and growing pockets of wealth–like the upscale apartments being built downtown. It would be naive to think the wealth and market forces won’t drive out the low-income people and their families not only in the low-income pockets but also in the mixed income areas. For the time being, the community seems fairly mixed to me as far as income is concerned. So when we discuss the landscape of our community it’s common for us to discuss the resources available to low-income families.

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One of the critical issues surrounding food insecurity and low-income families is food stamps. Beginning at our national orientation, we discussed the broken system for federal food assistance in this country. We did a poverty simulation where we had to fill out the applications ourselves and get a sense of how complicated the process is in and of itself, not to mention if you had to go through the application with several children at your side.

When we arrived in Pittsburgh after national orientation, we heard from Just Harvest a food advocacy organization about some of the stigmas associated with food stamps. One of the big ones that permeates society, is the misconception that low-income individuals are uninformed and make unhealthy decisions when shopping for food. There’s this pervasive idea that those on food stamps don’t know how to buy healthy food for themselves. Just Harvest has conducted research at the local farmers markets and found that individuals using food stamps, spend them in exactly the same way as individuals who are not on food stamps. The percentage of weekly groceries that are made up of fresh, local produce are exactly the same. Low-income families are  just as intelligent as high-income families when it comes to making healthy decisions about food for their families. I can’t believe that’s something that needs to be said and something that Just Harvest had reason to conduct research about for us to understand.

Another role of Just Harvest in the community is to help people through the food stamp application process. I made use of their program myself when I began the month-long application process. I decided to apply for the assistance early on in this position: very similar to Americorps in a lot of its structures. I spent a little over half an hour filling out an online application that was fairly straightforward, although I had to update my browser’s software to get it to run and I could not for the life of me figure out how to upload my verification documents at the end of the application and ultimately gave up.

Within a week I received a phone call from my caseworker.

“Is this Rachel Vinciguerra? I’m calling to conduct an interview about your application for the SNAP program.”

“Yes, this is Rachel. Do you want to schedule a time for us to do the interview?”

“No, we’re going to do it right now.”

He went through many of the questions I was asked on the application in rapid succession as I answered with “yes,” “no,” and then stumbled over my new and unfamiliar address.

At the end of our conversation he said I would receive further instructions in the mail about what forms I had left to submit. Easy enough, I suppose.

The following week I received a packet in the mail requesting that I have a form filled out by my landlord, get two documents from my employer detailing the specifics of the stipend and the housing, a letter explaining that although I live with others I purchase and prepare my own food, and copies of my identification and releases for a criminal record check. I had to collect and create all of these items and submit them to the office within 7 days or my application would not be processed. Suddenly, a little more difficult.

I was able to get the necessary information because my landlord happened to have an appointment to speak with us that week, because my employer was quick in responding to me with letters from the CEO and because I had free time to research and create my own purchase and prepare statement signed by my roommates. Things happened to fall into place for me. But I can’t imagine trying to get all of those items together in time with one or more full-time jobs and a family to support.

Regardless, I shipped the documents off in the mail and crossed my fingers they would arrive at my case worker’s desk in enough time. That Tuesday I waited for four hours for a second interview that had been scheduled for me according to my paperwork. I never received a call. Another week went by.

Finally I decided to find out what had happened with my application. I spent an hour and a half calling the office repeatedly, unable to get through to someone who could tell me what was going on. Ultimately, I decided to walk over to the office myself. The location was confusing because the entrance to the office is on a different street than the address they have listed. I had to ask around, but eventually I made it to the right place.

Inside the office I spoke with a security guard who prompted me to fill out a form detailing my request. I took an elevator up to the second floor and entered a spacious waiting room filled with folding chairs. I was greeted by another security guard who prompted me to wait in line with my form. Of the other people in line there was one family with young children and an individual. They asked their questions and then it was my turn.

The woman behind the counter was incredibly friendly. She said she was on food stamps at one time in her life too and understood that they didn’t make the process easy. She looked up my application in the system and told me that it hadn’t been rejected and my caseworker had only 5 days left to complete my case. It had been 25 days since I first submitted the application. She gave me a number so that I could speak to someone who could see more details of my case.

I stepped back out into the large space. In the time I had been speaking to the clerk, several more people had come in. Now there were at least 4 families and several other individuals in the space. One 2-year-old was toddling around the space, giggling and sitting down on the concrete. Another baby was crying. And a young girl was being physically and verbally reprimanded by her father for using her phone. I took a seat next to a mother and her teenage son and waited for my number to be called.

All over the room were signs that read “There’s no line online! Use our online system to apply for SNAP.”

The woman next to me pointed at the sign and whispered to her son,”No line, but we spent hours trying to get our application to go through.”

I had trouble with the online application myself and in that moment, those signs didn’t seem like friendly advice at all. They were almost rubbing it in the faces of the applicants that if you couldn’t make it through the online application you were unintelligent. To start with, not everyone has access to internet and even if they do the software the site uses is particular. The mother and son next to me had come into the office to fill out a paper application.

When my number was called I was directed back to a cubicle. I met another very friendly and helpful woman there who looked at my application to confirm that everything was in place. She gave me my caseworker’s phone number and told me that she would email him reminding him about my case and that I should hear within the next five days.

I walked back out past the families, still waiting in line. In the elevator on the way down I met a man heading out the door too.

“Did you wait long?” I asked him.

“Me? No. I work here. I just need a break. Nine years here. I just need to get outside of this building sometimes,” he said.

I left feeling reassured that my application was still being looked at, but I found myself even more frustrated with the process. More than the stigma associated with food stamps, the application process itself makes it very difficult for people who are already struggling to pay for food to get help. It’s one thing to talk about the issues with the system. It’s another thing to go through it yourself. And as with anything it’s different for each individual depending on what their personal limitations and responsibilities are. I don’t presume to know the stories of those sitting in the waiting room with me that day, but I know my own and I thought there was some value in sharing it here. I hope others applying for food stamps or just people looking for a little more insight into the process will take something away from my experience.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I had to return to that office one more time after my 30 days were up because I had still not received my card in the mail. My second trip to the waiting room was much more crowded. People were frustrated. Some had been waiting there for upwards of 3 hours watching others in the room come and go before they were seen. And in the most horrible kind of irony, many were missing lunch or work in order to be in that waiting room. One woman was parked at a meter that she couldn’t afford to pay (luckily a kind gesture from another man in the waiting room enabled her to run outside and fill it for another 2 hours). I heard conversations around childcare and the need to pick kids up from school before people’s numbers had been called. And all of this happening within the contours in a boring room with cheap chairs and signs on the walls that read “watch your children” and “there’s no line ‘online.'”

I did receive my ACCESS card in the mail yesterday and I am so grateful for the assistance it will provide. That being said, I think there’s a lot that needs to be done to streamline the process and allow people to maintain their dignity and their work and home lives while they go through the process.

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