After Hurricane Irma, the federal government offered a food assistance program to Floridians who needed help because of the storm. The signup period for that program ended last week.
But there’s an ongoing lawsuit that might reopen registration for some people with disabilities because, the suit claims, the lines to sign up were prohibitively long.
Registration for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) started in South Florida in mid October and the standard application process required an in-person interviews, a safeguard against fraud, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At times in South Florida, lines grew to tens of thousands of people waiting, some with camping chairs and coolers.
The second round of registration earlier this month was no different.
Juanita Dixon made her way through the line at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, noticeably struggling as she pushed her walker.
“They really don't look out for the handicapped, because if they had, I don't think I would have been in the line,” she said. “I can’t do a whole lot of walking so, like, I’m really out of breath trying to walk.”
After Dixon had waited for more than an hour in line, a worker pulled her out, got her on a golf cart and sent her to a separate disability line she didn’t know existed. At the massive sports complex, handicap signs were only posted at the entrance to the disability line.
Dixon stuck it out because she needed the help: She’s on a fixed income of less than $1,000 a month.
“I can’t afford homeowners insurance and I had minor roof damage done that blew a few of the shingles off the roof and I guess sooner or later the roof will start to leak. I don’t know,” she said. “But, now I got to worry about getting back to my car.”
Dixon did walk away with a D-SNAP card. The money to help put food on her table will be loaded in a few days.
But there were a lot of people who gave up because they were not able to stand in line for hours in the sun and rain because of their health or disability.
“We were told that the only accommodation available would be if they had someone that they could send to stand in line for them,” said JoNel Newman, director of the Health Rights Clinic at the University of Miami Law School.
After Hurricane Irma, Newman and her law students at the clinic went through their client lists to help get them any of the disaster assistance that opened up after the storm. One of those programs was D-SNAP.
After hearing stories of wait times running longer than five hours, she tried to see what alternatives existed for some of their more disabled clients who would be unable to wait in those lines.
They were told there was essentially no other way.
Along with her team at the clinic and a few community organizations, they are suing the Florida Department of Children and Families — the agency that administers the federal D-SNAP program in Florida — along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is ultimately in charge of D-SNAP.
The suit claims the two entities did not do enough to accommodate people with disabilities — like providing alternatives for people to do telephone interviews, or go to smaller satellite offices to register, or receive home visits.
States have the option to set up these kinds of alternatives. The USDA has to approve them, but Florida never asked.
“We had people out there who walked half a mile or more from the parking lot just to get into the line,” said Newman. “That's not possible for our clients.”
The USDA declined to be interviewed — it does not comment on pending litigation — and the Department of Children and Families did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Newman says she looked through all the plans for setting up D-SNAP in Florida.
“I couldn't find a single reference to the word accommodation or disability. And so this was a very large, I think, blind spot when they came up with their plan,” she said.
The issue of long lines and concerns about people with disabilities wasn’t just a Florida issue. D-SNAP food assistance was also rolled out in Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
“We had people who were in wheelchairs, people who for various reasons — either for health reasons or just for scheduling reasons — could not take five hours out in the sunshine to go stand in line,” said Jeff Larsen, a lawyer for Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.
At one of the registration sites, he got in his car and drove along the line, which clocked in at more than a mile long.
At another one of the sites, a man died after having a heart attack while waiting in line.
Accessibility to the registration locations was another issue in Texas.
Larsen’s office is not suing Texas or the federal government. He says it might have done so had it not been for a fire that burned the organization's office just a few days after the worst of the Harvey rains stopped.
“We didn’t have a copier, we didn’t have a printer, we had some laptop computers that escaped the fire, but that was about it,” said Larsen.
Another challenge with any legal action regarding the D-SNAP program: There’s a short window for people to register and then the program's over.
And courts generally move pretty slowly.
But JoNel Newman and her team in Miami were able to get an emergency hearing. They reached a tentative agreement with the state and federal governments: that by Thursday the USDA will decide whether to allow telephone interviews.
If that’s approved, only people with disabilities who pre-registered online will still have the chance to sign up for emergency food assistance.
If the USDA decides it will not allow telephone interviews, litigation will continue. A hearing is penciled in for Nov. 20.
This will not be able to help the many others who either didn’t pre-register or who don’t have officially recognized disabilities.
“I wasn’t confident to send my client out there, and honestly he didn’t want to go out there. He thought it was a lost cause,” said Thomas Voracek a second year law student working in the Heath Rights Clinic. One of his clients does not have a federally recognized disability, but also wasn’t able to get D-SNAP benefits.
“I don’t think he could have gotten these benefits. If he could, it would have been a Herculean task and he should be commended.”
Voracek went out one day to three different sites trying to sign up one of his clients, to no avail. They had all closed early. On the final day, he wasn’t able to wait hours in line.
“Look, we’re in a very poor county,” said Voracek, “so to implement a program like this and not think that they were going to have massive turnout baffles me.”
WLRN’s Caitie Switalski contributed to this report.
This is just the line for people with disabilities. pic.twitter.com/cPJkfnKWef
— Wilson Sayre (@WilsonSayre) October 12, 2017