Disaster benefits draw crowds, and praise for DSS

The line outside the Department of Social Services’ Hartford office stretched down the block Friday. Hundreds more low-income residents visited offices in Bridgeport and New Haven, seeking one-time assistance to make up for losses from Tropical Storm Irene.

The federal benefits have drawn a crowd, and, from people familiar with the department’s programs, praise.

“I really am very impressed with them on this,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut.

DSS line for disaster benefits 9-23-11

The line outside the Hartford regional office Friday

“So many of the people have had loss of power, loss of food, purchased a lot of supplies,” said Ellen Carter, director of programs at the Connecticut Association for Human Services. “This is an incredibly useful thing for the community.”

DSS has come under fire in recent years for its handling of program applications. Its performance in the food stamps program has been so problematic that the federal government in February warned that the state could face financial sanctions if it does not improve. Then-Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski attributed the problems to outdated technology, skyrocketing caseloads and fewer staff to handle them.

Many of the challenges still exist, but DSS has made special efforts to help people who qualify get the disaster benefits. The department temporarily deployed staff–including hearing officers, trainers, investigators and people who staff the Medicare Savings Program–to handle applications in the regional offices.

The department’s efforts have been assisted by the fact that the federal government has given the state more leeway to handle the program in response to the storm. The application is one or two pages, depending on the size of a person’s family, far shorter than the form for regular benefits. People can apply at any of the 12 DSS regional offices, rather than having to go to the one in their area, as is typically the case.

“This is working because it’s simplified,” said Suzette Strickland, End Hunger Connecticut’s SNAP program manager. SNAP–the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–is the program formerly known as food stamps. The disaster benefits are known as Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP.

The benefits range from $200 to $952, depending on family size, and come in the form of ATM-style cards that can be used for food items at grocery stores and supermarkets. They’re available to low-income state residents who had financial losses from the storm that weren’t otherwise reimbursed, including lost income and costs for medical care, moving and storage, temporary shelter, or repairing and replacing property.

People who received SNAP benefits at the time of the storm don’t qualify, but they received an extra 25 percent of their monthly benefits to help replace food spoiled because of the storm.

The application period is short: It began Wednesday and will end Tuesday. To help, staff from End Hunger Connecticut, the Hispanic Health Council, the Connecticut Association for Human Services, the Manchester Area Conference of Churches, and Foodshare have served as greeters at the DSS offices, helping to pre-screen potential applicants, passing out applications and answering questions. Dale Doll, director of food services at the Manchester Area Conference of Churches, said they can help determine who is eligible for benefits and who shouldn’t bother waiting in line or seeing a DSS worker.

“They’re so swamped at the office as it is, without this,” she said.

According to DSS, 1,752 applications were filed in the first two days. On Friday, the third day, 700 to 800 applicants showed up at the New Haven office. Some were served at Hamden’s M.L. Keefe Community Center, which is about a half mile away, when the DSS office became overcrowded. The other 11 offices also saw hundreds of applicants.

DSS is having the offices close the lines if it appears that additional people wouldn’t be able to be seen that day. Those who can’t be served are given rainchecks to get priority access on the next business day.

People can get approved for benefits by showing identification, although DSS has asked applicants to also bring proof of residency, income, assets and storm-related expenses for Aug. 27 through Sept. 25, in case additional information is needed and to discourage fraud.

DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby, who started the job in April, has said he wants to make the department more “client-centric.” The department is expected to get a technological makeover within two years. Bremby also wants the department to examine its programs–there are more than 90–and potentially align them better, to avoid conflicting program requirements or situations in which qualifying for one program makes someone ineligible for another.

There are limits to how much the experience of a one-time program in response to a disaster can translate to the department’s everyday work. People applying for regular SNAP benefits go through a lengthier determination process, aimed at making sure they meet the requirements.

Still, Strickland said the experience shows how much of a difference having streamlined applications can make. Currently, she said, many people who are eligible for SNAP don’t apply because of complicated paperwork or difficulty getting seen by an eligibility worker. Strickland has confidence in what can happen with the efforts to modernize the department.

“The modernization piece will work once it starts,” she said.

Applications will be taken at DSS’ 12 regional offices Monday and Tuesday, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Applicants should bring proof of identity, residency, income, assets and storm-related expenses for Aug. 27 through Sept. 25.

To qualify, an applicant’s income and liquid assets for the period from Aug. 27 to Sept. 25 cannot exceed $2,186 for a single person; $2,847 for a household of two; $3,272 for a household of three; $3,859 for a household of four; $4,254 for a household of five; $4,753 for a household of six; $5,116 for a household of seven; and $5,479 for a household of eight.

For more information, including a pre-screening tool, visit www.ct.gov/dss. Information is also available by calling 2-1-1.