Tuesday, May 5, 2009

One student thinks we should cut food assistance to the homeless.

Check out this editorial by one of my students:

I have long been aware that food stamps are available in this state for the poor, children, and homeless in our society; however I was unaware that those who live in shelters are approved for $200.00 a month per person in food stamps.

I have worked with the homeless for about three years and I see flaws in the system. The clients who live in shelters in Springfield without cost to them for anything (including meals, shelter, social services, bus tokens, telephone use, or any clothing we may have on hand), yet these clients are automatically eligible for food stamps. The client only has to stay overnight and they can qualify as a homeless person and therefore qualify for this benefit.

This seems to me to be a form of either fraud or double dipping. I have long asked many questions about this procedure and I believe that a homeless client should not be eligible for food stamps as long as he or she lives in a state or federally funded free shelter. I do believe that each case is unique and should be look at individually, and I am sure there are cases where it is necessary for the client to have food stamps, but I have not seen many in the three years I have worked there who did not need food stamps.

We need to assess the needs of each client, and if the client is staying at a shelter he should be required to donate the card or a portion of the card to the shelter while in the shelter. We must stop some of the waste so that we can use the funds for those in the need most.

Here is my reaction.

This is certainly a thought-provoking editorial, and I am glad you wrote such an interesting piece. You present a “fact” (I wonder if it’s really true that each person living in a homeless shelter qualifies for $200 per month in SNAP benefits, so that a family of four living in a homeless shelter would receive $800 in credit on their LINK card) and then point out that this is a flawed policy. You seem to be saying that since homeless shelters provide meals to their clients, those clients should, as part of a “payment” for staying at the shelter, be required to share their food security income (SNAP benefits) with the shelter, at least so that the shelter can use this money to supply the client with meals.

You also point out that persons who stay in a homeless shelter may have incomes that would make SNAP benefits unnecessary. For example, a person earning $13 per hour might be able to afford a low-rent apartment, but they could be saving up for a down payment on a better housing arrangement, and using the shelter as a place where they can reduce their costs of living while they save up money to pay for a better living space. In such situations, it seems fair that such persons not be given automatic benefits of $200 per month for food expenses, especially if they are eating at their homeless shelter.

It might be the case that you are suggesting that persons in homeless shelters should be disqualified from receiving food security benefits, because they can rely on the shelter for food, and so they should not receive SNAP funds. I wouldn’t agree with that because some shelters to no offer meals, and I prefer that clients have autonomy, and giving a person $200 to spend on food allows them to enjoy some freedom in making choices about what they eat. Also, if a person is relying on a shelter for their food and has no SNAP money, they became more dependent on their shelter, and less able to strike out on their own, so that is a concern for me.

I am also uncertain about what you mean when you say that persons in shelters receive $200 in SNAP money each month. From your essay, it seems you are saying that even if a housed person spends a single night in a shelter, they could receive the full benefit of SNAP money at a maximum level. It seems to me that the last time I checked, the food security policies did not work this way. When I last checked, food stamps (SNAP) benefits were determined through a complex formula that took into consideration one’s income, the number of dependents in one’s family, and one’s housing arrangement (as well as some other factors, such as one’s disability status and other forms of welfare benefits received). And yes, in such a formula I think it’s reasonable for persons who are designated as homeless (as those who live in a shelter should be designated) would enjoy a slight increase in their benefits because of their homeless situation. I understand why you might argue that homeless people should receive lower benefit levels, because they can have free food at shelters, but I think the program goal is to help clients establish autonomy and independence, and so I am for giving clients a bit more money to use on their own outside the shelter (money they could keep if they left the shelter and found housing in some other situation). Also, persons who are homeless may need to eat more prepared meals if they have no access to a kitchen or cooking equipment. Housed persons can presumably enjoy savings in their food costs by cooking at home.

If homeless shelters provide meals to their clients, that is their decision. Certainly they can choose to not provide meals and let their clients use their SNAP funds to keep themselves from becoming malnourished. Also, isn't it possible for shelters to charge their clients for meals, perhaps using food stamps (SNAP benefits)? In some places people have been using food security welfare to eat in restaurants for years.

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