Bread for the City in Lawsuit Against DHS
On Monday, August 28, Bread for the City brought a lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) because of widespread problems with the agency’s administration of food stamps for D.C. residents living with low-incomes. The Legal Aid Society of D.C., the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and the law firm Hogan Lovells have all come together to provide representation in this matter. Bread for the City is a plaintiff, along with four D.C. residents who have themselves suffered wrongful food stamps terminations and unacceptable delays in processing.
Bread for the City’s clients have long encountered problems with their food stamps at DHS, and we’ve worked with them over the years by providing legal help and extra food from our food pantry. But following a DHS computer system change in late 2016, we have seen an unprecedented increase in applications languishing, food stamps being terminated for no reason, and people receiving the wrong amount of benefits. Our organization’s resources are being stretched thin as a result of DHS’s food stamps failures. Since DHS implemented its new computer system, Bread for the City’s food pantry saw a significant increase in demand for emergency food bags (38% more households across the District and 52% more households living in Wards 7 and 8 during the period of October, 2016 to May, 2017, compared to the previous year). Our representative payee program has experienced a surge in requests for emergency funds for food from its clients with disabilities. And our legal clinic is receiving a huge number of referrals from other departments of Bread for the City, reporting problems with clients’ food stamps. Just in the summer of 2017, our legal clinic received more than 50 internal referrals for food stamps issues!
Since DHS’s system change, Bread for the City’s attorneys have worked to restore clients’ lost food stamps benefits, even when the agency admits that it made an error. The story of Ms. Clark (name changed) is a prime example. Ms. Clark is a single mother who is a survivor of domestic violence. In spite of her efforts to recertify for continued receipt of benefits, including several trips to DHS to provide supporting documentation, her entire family’s food stamps were terminated. A Bread for the City attorney got involved to resolve the issue informally with DHS but ultimately had to request a fair hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Even though DHS representatives agreed that Ms. Clark’s food stamps should not have been cut off, DHS’ response was that its system would not allow it to correct the problem. It was only after an OAH judge ordered DHS to restore Ms. Clark’s food stamps benefits and issue retroactive benefits within 5 days that DHS finally fixed the problem (though still requiring repeated follow-up from the Bread attorney). In the end, Ms. Clark received $3,696 – 5 months worth – in critically needed food stamps for herself and her four children.
There are many other D.C. residents like Ms. Clark who are needlessly suffering from a loss or denial of food stamps benefits. Bread for the City will continue helping our clients on an individual basis to get their food stamps restored and to provide supplemental food. But we are hopeful that our participation in this lawsuit will help spur DHS to make broad changes that will positively impact all D.C. residents who need food stamps to support themselves and their families.
The work of Bread for the City’s Legal Clinic is made possible in part through funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.