Complexity and bureaucracy of the process to qualify CalFresh could be some of the biggest challenges people face

A university student in Fresno who seeks to avoid starvation has requested food stamps three times. Another homeless student in Sacramento has applied twice. But the two have been denied every time they do.

A 61-year-old worker who looks after the sick at home in Oakland was left without food stamps last year because her paperwork was lost. The downside of everything is that, without a job, you can't pay for your food.

While picking up a free food box, a 62-year-old woman in San Diego told workers that she does not request food stamps because she is worried that it will prevent her from qualifying for US citizenship.

In total, approximately 1.6 million Californians are not receiving assistance from the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh, even though they are eligible. That means that 28% of people with poverty level budgets did not receive the assistance they needed in 2017, according to state data.

In the years of adulthood, university students and older adults are increasingly having trouble paying their bills, however, they are among the groups most likely to lose food stamps for those who qualify, according to some interviews with more than a dozen outreach workers and county state officials.

Experts said immigrants, working-class families and homeless people, also face challenges; However, the situation is complicated when people belong to more than one of these categories.

In 2016, at California state universities, only 5% of students received food stamps even though one in four was eligible. Regarding the elderly, only 19% received assistance, compared with 42% of the elderly nationwide, according to 2015 data. In addition, immigrants are less likely to enroll than people born in the United States. .

For those who are just passing it, food stamps make a big difference: the average CalFresh household earns $ 735 a month and receives $ 272 in food stamps, which equals $ 3 per food. A family of two qualifies with $ 16,920 of income per year after paying expenses such as housing and childcare.

"Humanly what this means is that we continue to allow Californians to run out of food," said Jessica Bartholow, an advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Low participation in California is not inevitable. Nine states, including neighboring Oregon and Washington entities, enrolled almost all eligible people in 2016, according to federal data, while California had the fifth lowest rate in the nation.

Nearly 4.4 million Californians lack reliable access to sufficient food, including 644,300 seniors and 1,638,430 children. In a state survey of university students, 35% suffered from food insecurity.

Every story of someone who loses food stamps provides a lesson on how county officials and state legislators could remove obstacles that prevent people from getting help.

The process of applying to CalFresh "ands as if you were applying for a job ”

On an empty stomach, Beverly Callupe's brain felt blurry and slow as her English instructor reviewed the possible exam questions about the book of The Glass Castle.

"I try to write everything and then I make sense of it, when I get some food," said Callupe, a 20-year-old student at Sacramento City College. “Doing something as simple as reading becomes so tiring. Paying attention is really difficult. It is not the best state to take classes, ”said the student.

Going hungry has been a constant in Callupe's life since June, when he decided to abandon what she calls, a home with an abusive father, so he was left homeless overnight.

Now that he lives in a shelter, Callupe said he complements free dinners with the cheapest foods he can find, such as canned soup, pancake mix, granola bars and canned peaches. He often doesn't have lunch and emphasizes that he goes to sleep hungry almost every night. ”

The first time Sacramento County denied CalFresh's request to Callupe, several months ago, she wasn't sure what was happening. The second time, a county worker told him he needed to work more hours to qualify.

This is a federal requirement, which requires that full-time students have to work 20 hours a week, a situation that could affect their grades and delay their graduation; unless they meet other exceptions.

"I was very sad and frustrated because I really depended on food aid," Callupe said.

Many other students also suffer when navigating the complex rules to qualify for CalFresh. Ruby Sultan learned about the program for the first time in a Food Science and Nutrition class at the University of Fresno. The teacher assigned the students to live a week with only $ 21 of budget, something typical for those who depend on food stamps.

At that time for Sultan, 26, the practice was far from his reality.

"But now it's like my real life," said the young woman, who no longer lives in her mother's house, became financially independent and has requested CalFresh three times, but without success.

Between jobs occasions and teacher of fitness In three gyms, Sultan said he hardly has enough money to pay for rent and food. However, the aspiring dietitian says she refuses to have her little money affect her diet, so she plans meticulously meals with fresh vegetables, seeds and grains; In addition to stretching the money to pay for your textbooks.

On the other hand, of the $ 25 or $ 30 you spend on food each week, Sultan depends on the rice, beans and fruits you get for free from a bank of weekly food and hot meals you get at a local church.

Very often Sultan works more than 20 hours a week, but it has been difficult to prove it to Fresno County. The first time he was denied CalFresh, at that time he could not get the check stubs on time. The second time he had not worked enough hours to qualify. And the last time, in September, she was working enough hours, but it happened to her boss to sign the form they requested.

The problem of homelessness and food for students in California is a big challenge. In a 2018 survey at 23 state universities in California, 40% of students were found to talk about food insecurity, while one in ten stressed that they had experienced homelessness in the last year.

It really has to do with myths about students coming from educated families, when education was reserved for the middle class or elites, said Bartholow of the Western Center of Law and Poverty. While previous generations may have been able to rely on their parents to help them with food costs, he added, many of today's students come from families who are already dealing with hunger problems. We are talking about students who already have children or receive some kind of help like Cal Grants and maintain a federal job, but who nevertheless qualify for CalFresh.

In recent years, California universities have intensified their efforts to help students like Callupe and Sultan deal with the CalFresh bureaucracy. Some universities hold aid fairs where they enroll hundreds of students.

Sacramento County employees visit fairs at two area universities several times a year to help students register, said Janna Hayness, county media spokeswoman. For its part, Fresno County has trained university staff to help students register and clarify information to students, said Angela Stillwell, social services program manager.

"The support is there, if (the students) have the time to look for it," said Stillwell, who added that what he can do is done to simplify the process of federal regulations.

University support workers said their biggest challenge is to meet the growing demand of students who want to register, but need help.

When Cal State Fresno University added a CalFresh application link to its class registration system, interest among students skyrocketed, said Jessica Medina, who directs the school's food safety project. Nearly 400 students have applied this quarter alone, he added, compared to a total of approximately 200 in the past two years.

Medina estimates that he would need two to three assistants to handle the volume of questions his office receives. At this time, she only has a part-time assistant.

A new California law could simplify the student's application for CalFresh. Two pending bills in Congress would expand students' eligibility to obtain food stamps.

A few days after her third rejection, Sultan said she was too disappointed to submit a fourth request.

"It's too much time. It is like a job in itself to apply.

"I don't know why they cut me"

Not only do students struggle to navigate in CalFresh. A year ago, Ruth Aquino, 61, received a letter from Alameda County that said her CalFresh benefits had ended because she had not submitted a report verifying that she was still eligible. But Aquino says he sent the report and left a voicemail to confirm it.

“I don't know why the coupons were interrupted when I presented the documents. I have the receipt, ”he said.

She already had $ 91 per month, but now without them and without the income left by working as a caregiver at home, since one of her clients has just died, she has run out of any income. So, to save money, he stopped filling his prescriptions to treat his high cholesterol.

In September, he learned that he could sign up for CalFresh in the lobby of his low-income senior apartment building in West Oakland. So he decided it was time to resubmit an application, no matter how frustrating his last experience would have been.

"Sometimes I am seeing food that I want to buy, but I can't afford to pay," Aquino said. With the extra money for the purchase, you could buy meat with less saturated fat. She dreams of making a large plate of spaghetti with lots of vegetables.

With the help of a worker from the Community Food Bank of Alameda County, it took half an hour to register the documents (identification, rent receipt, utility bills) and answer the many questions on the application. Days later, a county worker called Aquino for a mandatory interview. When his application was approved about a week later, he received $ 194, the maximum amount per month for a single person.

For CalFresh workers, the phenomenon that people have to reapply for support is called "carelessness."

In the first quarter of 2019, 23% of all new CalFresh applications across the state came from people who had received food aid in the last 90 days.

Sometimes, people leave the program because their income temporarily increases above the limit, but most often it is due to paperwork problems. Often, people miss the deadline for their six-month status report or annual recertification, or their documentation is considered incomplete. It is not uncommon for documents to be lost in the county, according to some workers from the same entity.

Sharon Johnston-Corson, 50, of Sacramento, needed to lose a job to have time to register with CalFresh. Without a computer at home, she said that she and her husband had struggled to find time outside of their full-time jobs to go to a library where they could register and send the required documents. A month ago his CalFresh registration had been deleted.

But now that Johnston-Corson's temporary work is over, her family, including teenage twins, are living on the $ 11 an hour her husband earns.

"The advantage of being out of work is that I now have time to get to the food bank and do all that (the CalFresh paperwork)," said the young woman.

In California, about 61% of eligible poor workers participated in CalFresh in 2016, compared with 75% nationwide, according to federal data.

Incomplete applications and some oversights are especially common among homeless people, who often lack an address and a cell phone, said Amy Dierlam, director (outreach) of CalFresh at River City Food Bank, an entity that has been A lifesaver for the growing homeless population of Sacramento, where some people have trouble keeping track of documents and appointments due to disability, mental illness or addiction.

While he was waiting for Dierlam's help on a recent afternoon, Antonio Chaquies, a middle-aged homeless man, discarded a list of things he didn't carry because he had his backpack stolen from his documents, that's why he saw its benefits of CalFresh, they were reduced since he had not delivered one of his previous reports and had missed several appointments with the county.

"They just don't finish the steps," said Dierlam, who added that in his work he often feels like a detective, trying to match a puzzle of customer stories with letters from the county to discover why his CalFresh was cut.

"For some, it is life or death," he emphasizes.

“This program is no longer for me”

Almost two decades ago, when Evangelina Castañeda's husband died, food stamps helped her family end the month without problems. But now the 62-year-old San Diego resident does not want to rely on government assistance.

"I am afraid of not being able to become a citizen," said Castaneda, who is originally from Mexico, but as a legal permanent resident for decades, is eligible for food stamps. “Now it's a little scary for the president we have… I hear what he says sometimes in the news.

Castañeda said he usually has enough to eat, and when he doesn't, he picks up boxes from the food bank or attends meals at a local church. Of his four adult children, he mentions: "(They) do not know that I go to these places to eat … I will not tell them because they have their own expenses and responsibilities."

Castañeda's concern has become increasingly common among immigrant communities since early 2017, food bank workers said. It was then that they first heard Trump's public administration rule that says he would deny residence or citizenship to immigrants who use public benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid.

California and other states sued the Trump administration and federal courts blocked the rule on October 11, days before it went into effect.

However, the judicial battle has not marked the difference between the community. María Lewis, outreach coordinator for CalFresh at the San Diego Food Bank, estimates she speaks with about 10 people weekly who fear that applying for CalFresh will damage the immigration application of a family member.

Across the state, social service providers have reported that even those, such as Castañeda, who are not affected by the federal rule, increasingly avoid safety net programs due to uncertainty and confusion.

Fear has made it difficult for CalFresh to reach immigrants. But the puzzle of federal eligibility requirements for non-citizens has been difficult to explain in English for county workers, and much more difficult in other languages.

Among US citizens who are within the income limit to qualify for the program, the number of immigrants who reported participating in CalFresh is 70%, compared to people born in the US., According to the Interview Survey data of health of California 2018.

Counties can combat the effects, ensuring that all paperwork is well translated into locally spoken languages, said Almas Sayeed, deputy director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. She added that county offices dedicated to providing immigrants with a space where they feel good to provide information in either Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara are a role model.

However, Castañeda also did not want to accept food stamps because he thought that this service should go to the most needy people, a common belief among the elderly. "These programs are good, but I feel that this program is no longer for me because I am healthy," Castañeda said. "I don't want to take advantage."

Limited knowledge of the program and the intimidating amount of paperwork are also important barriers for the elderly, said Lorena Carranza, outreach manager for CalFresh at the Sacramento Food Bank.

A recent policy change can help educate older people and dispel myths. Until June of this year, low-income seniors and people with disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) were prohibited from obtaining CalFresh. But California lawmakers voted last year to expand the program to SSI beneficiaries, so counties and the food bank mobilized a statewide enrollment campaign. As of October 1, almost 243,000 SSI beneficiaries had enrolled.

Learned lessons

There are common themes among these stories of Californians: college students, immigrants, seniors, people who work long hours and homeless people, who do not get the support in the food they need.

Misconceptions about who is entitled to food stamps abound. Entering and staying in the program requires a lot of time, diligent registration and a comfortable navigation bureaucracy. Many need the support of food banks and nonprofit organizations to guide them through the program.

Alexis Fernández, acting head of the CalFresh branch of the California Department of Social Services, said that increasing participation among students, workers and senior citizens is a priority for the state. Some progress has already been made: the state has reduced fingerprint requirements, proof of financial assets and a lifelong ban on people with drug-related crimes.

Allowing people to apply for and be approved for the program on the same day, as the state of Washington has done, would greatly reduce barriers, said Bartholow, a policy advocate for the needy. Some counties in California have moved toward this model by reviewing state databases instead of requiring people to register their documents, offering applications completely over the phone and allowing people to do the interview on demand.

But the deployment has not been uniform in the 58 counties of the state, each of which runs the program separately. State leaders have faced how much improvement can be achieved by pressing counties to be more efficient and how much it depends on the state providing more funds for workers and spreading the program.

There is much at stake as populations vulnerable to hunger increase. Older people, who are increasingly poor and immigrant, are the fastest growing age group in the state. More low-income students attend California universities than in the past. And homelessness is increasing rapidly amid a crisis of housing affordability.

But closing the gap between those who need food stamps and those who don't get them is feasible, Bartholow said.

"It's not as complicated as being hungry and trying to go to school, or being hungry and trying to find housing, or being hungry and trying to take care of your children, or being hungry and needing to take medication with meals," Bartholow emphasized . .

"There must always be a meal with your written name," he said.

Jackie Botts is a journalist of CalMatters for the project The California Divide, a collaboration between several newsrooms that examine income inequality and economic survival in California.


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