Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Long Lines Persist at DC Safety Net Program Centers

This post was written by 2018 Legal Aid summer interns Tracey Zhang, David Wasserstein, Jenny Jiao, and Shelby Ferguson

Among the most illuminating experiences we had during our internship this summer was the opportunity to make early morning visits to the Department of Human Services (DHS) Service Centers to gather data about the lines of residents waiting outside. The District’s most vulnerable residents wait in line at DHS Service Centers to secure access to vital safety net benefits such as food stamps, health insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Residents can be turned away once Service Centers reach capacity, and therefore often get in line long before sunrise. They must wait outside, even in the summer heat or bitter cold of winter. Many of the waiting customers are elderly, living with disabilities, or accompanied by young children, factors that make long waits even more difficult.

These issues have long plagued the District. In June 1970, Reader’s Digest published Our Food Stamp Fiasco, which included details about a line of approximately 24 District residents, including elderly, pregnant, and disabled residents, gathering before sunrise at one of the District’s then 14 food stamp certification centers. In June 2018, some 48 years later, many of the same challenges remain, however the lines are longer and there are now only five Service Centers.

During the months of June and July 2018, we made weekly visits to the H Street and Taylor Street Service Centers. We recorded the number of residents in line and the length of time they had been waiting. As the chart below shows, the first resident in line often arrived between 3:00 and 4:00 am, and by the time the doors open at 7:30 am, an average of 71 residents were waiting in line. The data we collected is displayed in the chart below.

 

Date

Service Center Number of people in line when doors opened at 7:30am Time of arrival reported by first person in line
June 15, 2018

H Street

55 4:30 am
June 20, 2018 Taylor Street

75

3:45 am

June 28, 2018

Taylor Street 88

3:30 am

July 3, 2018

H Street 88

4:00 am

July 3, 2018

Taylor Street 62

4:15 am

July 11, 2018

Taylor Street 73

3:00 am

July 11, 2018

H Street 72

3:30 am

July 19, 2018

H Street 60

3:20 am

July 19, 2018

Taylor Street 69

5:30 am

July 25, 2018

H Street 91

3:00 am

July 25, 2018

Taylor Street 92

2:30 am

July 31, 2018 H Street 97

2:30 am

July 31, 2018 Taylor Street 89

3:10 am

 

Our observations from this summer are consistent with earlier outreach and advocacy that Legal Aid has been doing for several years, which formed the basis of its testimony before the DC Council. It is crucial that District residents living in poverty are given access to DHS Service Centers to apply for and recertify benefits, such as food stamps and health insurance. These circumstances demonstrate the dire need for a more efficient, effective process at these Service Centers.  Any unnecessary barriers to Service Center access interferes particularly with the ability of our most vulnerable District residents to access the vital safety net benefits they need.

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