If Mayor de Blasio wants to have a national conversation about how government can help working people, we suggest he start in Harlem.
In June, city government closed Harlem’s St. Nicholas SNAP Center, which helps connect 25,000 households to basic support for food through SNAP benefits, formerly known as “food stamps.”
The New Yorkers previously served by this center have been shuffled over to an already high-traffic office in East Harlem. The mayor’s Department of Social Services made this move with no discernible input from the community, no public meetings and no hearings.
It’s the third center shuttered in the last year and an abrupt and destabilizing switch for a highly vulnerable population. The city has slashed evening and weekend hours at eight additional centers.
Homeless families, senior citizens and people with disabilities — many facing language barriers — depend on SNAP to help them take care of their core needs. Many more families use these benefits to ensure they don’t become homeless, joining the record number of people living in shelter in New York City this year.
The administration gave clients of the St. Nicholas center six weeks’ advance notice of the closure, telling the Daily News at the time that “the internet is making bricks-and-mortar welfare offices obsolete.”
In response, 30 organizations, 10 academics, 400 petition signers and three City Council members asked for more time and consideration — but those pleas fell on deaf ears. Why won’t the city listen to the people who are impacted before making changes to the vital services they depend on?
Those on the front lines know that SNAP centers are by no means obsolete. The administration has cited an increase in online applications as the basis for removing the centers, but these statistics are misleading. A substantial percentage of online applications are completed at physical SNAP centers.
Households depending on SNAP have extremely low incomes and many lack consistent access to the internet, phones and oftentimes computers. In fact, hundreds of thousands of clients do not and cannot use the online SNAP web app.
Even for households with the access and ability to use the app, issues often arise that cannot be adequately addressed using technology and require in-person assistance. For many, the in-person centers are the only outlets for ensuring uninterrupted access to SNAP.
Meanwhile, overloading the East Harlem SNAP Center has the potential to make operations even more inefficient. Mistreatment, case errors, and long wait times are the norm there. Average wait times at SNAP centers citywide are already 40 minutes per the city’s flawed public data; analysis and surveys by the Safety Net Project indicate that they are far longer.
Even more vexing is the East Harlem center’s guidance that clients obtain approval when bringing along “a visitor.” That means that advocates — like the workers at Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project or case workers that Win employs at every shelter to help families on the path to stability — may no longer be able to go to the SNAP center unannounced to assist their clients.
Finally, the extra hours of operation on evenings and weekends are vital to SNAP recipients, who often work long and unpredictable hourly wage jobs. Cutting hours is a potentially disastrous move for thousands of households facing onerous new requirements to demonstrate they’re working or engaged in school at least 20 hours per week.
When a person fails to live up to these work requirements, the Trump-led federal government will restrict access to SNAP benefits to only three months for a three-year period.
We’re puzzled as to why the administration — so focused on telling the country about the strides the city is making helping people in need — moved so quickly and without community input to close offices and reduce hours at centers that provide a vital lifeline to thousands of low-income New Yorkers.
Quinn is the president and CEO of Win, the largest provider of shelter, social services and supportive housing for homeless families in NYC. Davis is the policy analyst for the Urban Justice Center Safety Net Project.