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Bread for the City’s Miles-Lee: Poverty, Food Access, and How Lawyers Can Help

By Jeffery Leon

October 26, 2017

Allison-Miles-Lee-Photo Credit: Tracy J.

In the October Washington Lawyer, we explored the growing food deserts in the District of Columbia, where many of the city’s poorest residents struggle to gain access to healthy foods.

Below is an expanded interview with Allison Miles-Lee, a senior supervising attorney at Bread for the City who helps District residents obtain public benefits offered by the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), including food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), D.C. Healthcare Alliance, and Medicaid.

Miles-Lee talks about the increased demand for food among low-income residents as benefits are slashed, as well as her work to help Bread for the City clients navigate the system to get the assistance they need.

What are the top issues Bread for the City is dealing with when it comes to food insecurity?

Right now [it’s] the problems that the Department of Human Services is experiencing in processing food stamps applications and recertifications. We find that we need to get involved on the clients’ behalf to try to get these benefits turned back on or get back benefits that are owed.

In October 2016, we began seeing an increase in those types of problems due to changes in the DHS computer system, which has led to numerous computer glitches. This is in addition to human errors and language access availability issues that already existed. It's a perfect storm in leading people to be denied access to food stamps and other aid.

What does hunger in D.C. look like?

There’s an increased need for food. Our clients can come to Bread for the City once a month to get a five-day supply of food for their family. Clients [previously were] able to get an emergency food bag once a year. We tracked when people came in for emergency food bags from October 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017, and compared it to [data from] the same period from 2015 to 2016. [We] saw a 41 percent increase in the number of emergency food bags Bread for the City distributed overall. The number of households in Wards 7 and 8 – the wards in the District with the lowest per capita income – that received an emergency food bag increased by 52 percent during that same time period.

Unfortunately, we . . . had to suspend our emergency food bag program. It became too costly.

Tell us more about Bread for the City’s work with these clients.

We’re trying to make sure that people who come into our food, social services, or medical programs are getting direct referrals to legal help if they have any issues with their food stamps or other benefits. We’re talking to a lot more people than we used to. It’s difficult and disappointing to tell them that they are only qualified for a small amount of benefits or [are] ineligible for them. The disappointment of those who are struggling to get by, especially if they’re on disability benefits like Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance, which could be their only source of income, [out of] which they’re already paying an amount toward rent and other living expenses . . . we’re having those conversations more as part of our internal referral process.

As far as dealing with immediate hunger, other than helping to fix a problem with food stamps, there’s nothing we can do [but] encourage people to come in to our food program. We have referrals we give out to people that can point them to other places that distribute food.

What would be the impact of potential cuts to the safety net?

I’m worried about food stamps and Medicaid. People are just making it as it is right now, and any cuts would be horrible. We just heard that food stamps will be reduced for all District residents this fall, and people are beginning to receive notices about the change. In addition, families who have received TANF for more than five years are still receiving a drastically reduced amount of benefits. Right now a family of three would be receiving $508 in TANF, but if they’ve been receiving benefits for five years they’ve already seen their benefits reduced to $154.

Luckily, the “cliff” that was scheduled for this fall, which would have reduced those families’ TANF to zero dollars, has been stopped. Families who have received TANF for more than five years should see their benefits restored in 2018, but they still have to suffer through more months at the reduced amount. Those people are already using their TANF benefits to cover food expenses and will really feel the effect of food stamps being reduced even more.

How can attorneys best help?

We'd be willing to partner with law firms and attorneys that are interested in taking on actual DHS legal cases for people whose benefits have been denied or who are due retroactive benefits. Those are the types of cases we take on ourselves, and [Bread for the City] would be able to provide mentorship to pro bono attorneys. We’re looking for more formal relations with a referral mechanism where firms would be able to take on a set number of cases.

Food stamps cases can often be resolved by an attorney just communicating with DHS without ever having to go to a hearing or a meeting. Our clients are getting extremely frustrated because they're going to DHS service centers four to five times to try and get their food stamps turned back on and nothing happens. For better or worse, there's something about a lawyer who can send a well-written email that can get DHS’s attention more than someone going in by themselves.

I’d also recommend reaching out to local legal services organizations like Bread for the City, the Legal Aid Society, Whitman-Walker Health, and others and see if they’re able to place cases for you as well.