House District 13

Salvation Army officials aim to quell panic over looming welfare closures

In Mele in the News on April 16, 2010 at 3:17 am

From The Maui News

Thanks to Claudine San Nicolas for her excellent reporting.

KAHULUI – While a measure in the state Legislature would prohibit welfare office closures on Neighbor Islands, Salvation Army officials on Maui have been assuring panic-stricken clients that they won’t be abandoned when they seek public assistance.

Emotions have been running high since late last month when the state Department of Human Services first announced layoffs of more than 200 eligibility workers statewide. Many of the employees assist people in applying for government programs such as food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and also known as SNAP), Medicaid, cash assistance and child care money for families who cannot afford it.

Dan Merritt, Salvation Army’s SNAP coordinator for Maui, said homeless people and adults in low-income families expressed anxiety that the layoffs of state employees might slow down the issuance of the debit cards they receive through SNAP to buy food.

“They’re actually coming to me in a panic, and I have to assure them that the SNAP program will stay in effect and everything humanly possible will be done to ensure that they get food on the table,” Merritt said.

SNAP assistance currently comes in the form of electronic benefits that can be used like debit cards in most grocery stores.

On Maui, the program has up to 29 state eligibility workers. There also is one SNAP employee on Lanai and three on Molokai. All of the SNAP employees have received layoff notices that take effect June 30. Some of the employees might lose their positions but still have jobs depending on seniority and whether they qualify to assume another position.

DHS public information officer Toni Schwartz said clients and SNAP applicants should be able to access benefits more easily and perhaps faster when the department’s modernization plan takes effect Oct. 1.

“People have actually gained options,” Schwartz said, pointing out that low-income families and disadvantaged individuals can apply for benefits by e-mail, through fax and/or through an online application process.

Currently, applicants have to undergo a face-to-face interview while also providing information on a 13-page application.

The Salvation Army received a $59,000 grant from the Hawai’i Community Foundation as well as a $33,000 contract this year from the state to assist individuals and families with the application process.

The Salvation Army is one of several providers contracted by the state to conduct field work with potential SNAP clients.

Since January, as many as 112 Maui families have prequalified for benefits and approximately 374 men, women and children have received benefits with the Salvation Army’s guidance through the application process, Merritt said.

Many clients are intimidated by the 13-page-long application and its requirements for documentation, he said.

“That’s why our assistance is critical or else some people don’t bother to apply at all,” he said.

According to documents supplied by Merritt, the average monthly benefit per household for the federally funded SNAP is $427 per month. Food stamp benefits in Hawaii are more than $322 million annually. Approximately 62,852 households, and 125,052 people in Hawaii receive SNAP benefits.

Of the $322 million in benefits distributed statewide, about $17 million in benefits were issued on Maui in 2009.

Schwartz said she does not believe that the layoffs will negatively affect the SNAP program nor will they mean that private providers assisting with the application process will get any busier.

She said potential applicants also can visit their library for free and file online applications there. Others who can get access to a phone and call a state worker who will be either stationed on Oahu or the Big Island for help with application process.

“I don’t think people need to worry as much as they’re worrying,” Schwartz said.

Merritt said his office stands ready for individuals who insist or prefer face-to-face assistance.

“I believe we’re going to have to pick up the slack,” he said.

A vote on Senate Bill 2650, which would exempt Neighbor Islands from welfare office closures, is expected today.

State Rep. Mele Carroll, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai residents, maintains that residents need in-person access to officials processing welfare applications, particularly residents who bilingual or don’t have access to the Internet.

The state Department of Human Services wants to close 31 welfare offices statewide to save $8 million a year and streamline benefit processing into two new call centers in Honolulu and Hilo.

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