Tabytha Gardener and William Foord say this Christmas holiday season is feeling a lot calmer and calmer than usual.
A couple’s Christmas dinner in Anchorage typically includes prime rib roast or turkey with all the trimmings, mashed potatoes, gravy, salad, green bean casserole, corn for the fussy, rolls, pumpkin and pecan pie, and apple cider. included.
This year it’s macaroni, cheese and hot dogs. Their bank account has been deducted $497.
The couple are among thousands of Alaskans whose food stamp benefits have been significantly delayed over the past four months amid unprecedented backlogs of applications and understaffing of Alaska’s public assistance department. .
State officials attributed the problem to a staffing shortage, a cyberattack that disrupted online services for months, and a reinstatement received earlier this fall when Alaska’s pandemic-era emergency quota program expired in September. We believe this is due to the influx of certification applications. The program made it easier for Alaskans to enjoy maximum benefits without annual recertification and ended when the state’s state emergency declaration ended.
All states have had to deal with an influx of applications following the end of their federal programs. There is a month-long delay, Lee Dickie, director of advocacy for Alaska Legal Services, told the Daily News. This agency provides free legal assistance to low-income Alaskans.
The backlog “shows how completely broken our system is,” Dickey said.
Shanda O’Brien, director of the Alaska Department of Public Assistance, said in an interview this week that the agency is doing more to meet demand, handle backlogs and address various technical challenges that are slowing the approval process. said it was working to hire staff for the
However, many Alaskans rely on the benefits of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAPs, or more colloquially known as food stamps) to support their families. I didn’t have a clear timeline for when I would receive the much-needed help. upon.
Meanwhile, many food stamp recipients interviewed for this article said they were put on hold for four to five hours at a time when they tried to contact SNAP’s state call center. They expressed frustration at the lack of transparency about why benefits are being delayed, when they will be able to receive relief, and stress about where their next meal will come from and what they will do next to make ends meet. Longtime SNAP recipients said they had waited the longest ever to receive help.
“We band-aid everything,” said Gardener.
miracle out of nothing
More than 80,000 people, or 1 in 9 Alaskans, rely on food stamps to support their families. More than two-thirds of her beneficiaries have children in their families and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.
When Alaskans apply for SNAP benefits or attempt to renew existing benefits, the state has 30 days to process the paperwork. Processing these applications now takes much longer on average, up to four months.
State officials said this week that delays have affected at least 8,000 Alaskans who applied or attempted to recertify for SNAP benefits in August, as well as thousands who have applied since. rice field.
Crystal Gilmear, a single mother of four from Homer, submitted her annual SNAP renewal papers on August 30.
Until then, she was receiving a monthly benefit of $934 for her family of five. It is the only income she receives, other than $27 in child support, which she receives from the father of her child.
Guilmere is unable to work because she has no one to look after her children ages 13, 5, 4 and 3. Without her job, she cannot afford to raise a child.
In October, when SNAP benefits weren’t credited to his account, Guilmere called Alaska’s Department of Public Assistance.
After waiting a long time, they looked up her case and told her they saw she had submitted all the paperwork. I told her I didn’t know.
Jilmia tries to go directly to Homer’s Public Aid Department office, but when she arrives, she finds that all the desks have been cleared and none of the lights are on. had been, she was later told.
So she called back the state helpline every day for a month. Most days she was tied up for hours. She cried almost every day too.
To survive, she goes to Homer’s local food bank on Mondays and Fridays.
“I had to create a miracle out of nothing,” she said.
No Remedy Timeline
Food stamp recipients feel an increasing sense of urgency as the months pass.
However, it has not been determined when Alaskans waiting for delayed SNAP benefits will be able to receive the money.
O’Brien said when the public health emergency ended in July, there were 8,000 people who had to renew their applications as a result.
At the same time, she said she experienced staffing shortages “because people retired, moved out of state, or simply made other choices.” she said.
Recently, the agency created 45 new temporary positions to support inflows. Many will be onboarded “in the next month,” O’Brien said.
Agencies are also stepping up their hiring efforts for full-time employees, O’Brien said.
“We have a dedicated team of individuals that we recently convened to deal with our oldest jobs and the rest of the workforce that continues existing paperwork,” she said. , really helps us address the workload challenges we face.”
When asked how quickly new staff could help work through the agency’s backlog, O’Brien said he had no estimate.
“I don’t want to set expectations that we can’t meet,” she said, adding that Alaskans should start seeing the impact of the new jobs “soon” and she will be able to renew Alaskans going forward. Deaf added. Week in progress.
In the meantime, Alaskans can go to their local public assistance department, which is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, or call the state’s virtual contact center at 800-478-7778, O’Brien said. said Mr.
On a weekday in December, Hedberg said the average wait time at the call center was about an hour and a half.
More than half of the calls the center received that day were abandoned. In most cases, the person waited too long and hung up before someone could be reached.
Once the caller connects, everyone on the call can tell if the document has been received. It’s not how long it takes for your application to be reviewed or when you can expect a decision on benefits.
Only those who meet the state’s criteria for expedited application processing will be allowed to queue for the one-week timeline, O’Brien said. , income and other types of resources, including savings accounts, must be less than $100, she said.
Dickey said this week that Alaska’s legal services have been inundated with requests for help from Alaskans awaiting SNAP benefits and not sure what else to do.
A lawyer for her company said it could help Alaskans who have waited more than 30 days for the state to review their applications for SNAP benefits or to apply for a fair hearing for renewal. Mountain’s.
Because SNAP is a federal program, the state must treat the request for review as a request for a fair hearing, Dickey explained. said Dicky.
“They seem to have a select group of staff who can review them within 10 days,” Dickey said. rice field.
Dickey said he was frustrated by the Department of Public Assistance’s lukewarm response to thousands of Alaskans not benefiting, and the agency said, for example, to mirror the state’s Permanent Fund Dividends Portal, He said he spent years making the application and renewal process more streamlined.
The Alaska Ombudsman’s office, which investigates complaints about state agencies, has also received nearly 200 complaints related to SNAP delays, Katie Buckhart, Alaska’s ombudsman, told KTOO Public Media. .
Proponents say another option starving Alaskans have is to call 2-1-1 for resources or ask a local food bank for help.
Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy for Alaska’s Food Banks, said her organization has seen a decline in donations and an increase in need in recent months as the cost of living has risen.
Anchorage residents can visit anchoragefood.org for a daily list of free food pantries near you.
“We sympathize with the challenges the state is facing. We know the people there are working hard to clear the backlog,” said Dahl. . “But people are really frustrated. And they’ve been really frustrated for a while.”
Meanwhile, Anchorage’s Tabitha Gardener and William Hood don’t know how long to wait for relief.
Hood is unable to work due to a chronic illness. The gardener lost his food stamps when he got a job at Home Depot in the fall. In October he reapplied.
Three weeks ago, she was told by a department official that her benefits would be credited to her account within four days. Relieved, she used the little money she had left in her bank account to pay some bills.
Two days before Christmas, Gardener said that her SNAP benefit had not yet been credited. She needs to take an Uber for an early morning shift that starts before the buses run.
She is faced with an impossible choice. She either pays for food for her family or pays for transportation to commute to buy food. Next on the chopping block is internet service. heat. She has already received a disconnection notice from the power company as her bill is two months behind her.
“Today is my daughter’s 16th birthday. And we can’t even give her a cake.”
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In Anchorage, Alaskans can visit Anchorage Food.org Daily updated list showing free grocery stores around town.Alaskan food banks also have online calendar of a food distribution site. Statewide, Alaskans can call her 2-1-1 for free assistance. Connect to local resources for food aid.
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