September 27, 2023
On Wednesday, September 27th, 2023, Policy and Advocacy Associates Juan Diaz and Jenny Veloz provided testimony to the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare regarding significant delays in benefit access and application processing for NYC families entitled to economic supports. On behalf of CCC, Juan and Jenny’s testimony presents recommendations to fix the severe delays in SNAP, cash aid, housing application approvals and effectively handle increases in emergency rental assistance applications through investment prioritization and important staffing support.
Since 1944, Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York has served as an independent, multi-issue child advocacy organization. CCC does not accept or receive public resources, provide direct services, or represent a sector or workforce; our priority is improving outcomes for children and families through civic engagement, research, and advocacy. We document the facts, engage and mobilize New Yorkers, and advocate for solutions to ensure that every New York child is healthy, housed, educated, and safe.
We would like to thank Chair Ayala and all the members of the Committee on General Welfare for holding today’s oversight hearing on public benefits processing delays at HRA. To ensure New York City continues its recovery from the pandemic, we must make sure that families are receiving benefits in a timely manner.
New York City is currently at a crossroads. Programs designed to improve New York City residents’ economic stability and quality of life are in grave danger. Staff reductions and vacancies within city agencies have impacted service deliveries to our most vulnerable populations. The Mayor’s proposed 15% budget cuts to agencies like the Department of Social Services ($1.4 billion cut) and Department of Homeless Services ($800 million cut) will exacerbate an already problematic situation of individuals and families not receiving benefits, such as SNAP, cash assistance and housing vouchers, on time. Those hardest hit by the health and social-economic impacts of the pandemic are struggling to recover, and the existing city agency vacancies, unacceptable delays in accessing benefits, and now newly proposed austerity measures will only make the problems worse and bring real harm to New Yorkers.[i]
Food Security Recommendations
During COVID, federal programs, like emergency SNAP allotments and stimulus checks, helped alleviate food insecurity. On average, families received at minimum an extra $95 in their monthly SNAP benefits, which helped households buy healthy groceries as unemployment and food prices rose. Households had a reprieve from having to make tough choices of whether to pay their rent, bills or buy groceries. However, the expiration of emergency SNAP in March 2023 left families once again struggling to afford food. Additionally, the backlog of SNAP applications in the city (causing delays in families accessing their benefits) continues to adversely affect New Yorkers who need these resources the most.[ii]
As New York City continues to recover from the pandemic, SNAP continues to be an important anti-poverty resource for families. With inflation making food more expensive, low-income households are again struggling with the high cost of not only food, but housing, childcare, transportation, and utilities. The recently released Mayor’s Management Report (MMR) indicates that the number of households receiving SNAP has increased between FY22 and FY23. The report also indicated that timeliness receipt of SNAP benefits exponentially decreased during the same time, 60.1% to 39.7% respectively.[iii] While more people are applying for SNAP, more people are waiting more than the federally mandated 30 days. These wait times affect the health and well-being of children and families. Having healthy food options allows for better physical and emotional health, leading to increased participation in schools, decreased absences, better focus, and academic achievement. Chronic medical conditions can become exacerbated without SNAP enabling the purchase of healthier food options. New York City must invest in the resources vital to the health and well-being of families and children, starting with ensuring that HRA has the staffing and resources necessary to process SNAP benefits in a timely manner. We also urge the city administration to reject proposed austerity measure of 15 % budget cuts, and they would detrimentally impact the health of New Yorkers.
The staff shortages and vacancies at HRA will continue the challenge faced by the agency to process SNAP benefits within 30 days. Filling these vacancies is essential to alleviate wait times and give households the much-needed assistance they need. Although HRA has hired employees to assist with SNAP, staffing is still well-below pre-pandemic levels, 10,853 full-time employees in July, compared to 12,528 in December 2019.[iv] Without proper staffing, families will be unable to utilize their SNAP benefits, increasing reliance on other resources such as food banks and pantries, soup kitchens, and families and friends. Application delays can lead to less healthy food options and less spending on groceries, impacting local economies. Notably, benefits of prioritizing staffing to get SNAP benefits to eligible households cannot be understated, it will not only offer immediate support to food insecure households to combat hunger and support healthy eating but will also result in immediate consumer spending across the city in food retailers and farmers markets thereby benefiting our economy.
Housing Security Recommendations
CCC is a steering committee member of The Family Homelessness Coalition (FHC). FHC is comprised of formerly homeless mothers and 20 organizations representing service and housing providers and children’s advocacy organizations united to end family homelessness. Our budget, legislative, and programmatic priorities speak to the collective desire to end family homelessness by preventing family homelessness, improving the well-being of children and families in shelter, and supporting the long-term stability of families with children who leave shelter ensuring they do not return to shelter.
The current housing and shelter crises started long before the recent influx of migrant families as 9,800 families with children were already languishing in our shelter systems, spending 520 days in shelter on average.[v] CCC and peer advocates across the city are deeply concerned with the Mayor’s call for budget cuts in the coming months. Instead, we urge the City Administration to prioritize action steps that can keep families housed and expedite access to permanent housing for those already in shelter and to protect staffing and fill staffing vacancies at DHS, HRA, and HPD.
The following recommendations are not only cost-effective but will improve outcomes for unhoused families, create space within our existing shelter system for newly arrived migrants, and positively impact our local economy.
Implement CityFHEPS expansion by removing administrative and eligibility barriers and expedite access to housing support for families in the community and in shelters. The recent Mayor Management Report (MMR) highlights the need to fully staff HPD, DHS and HRA to streamline housing applications and reduce paperwork so that families with children could remain housed and secure permanent housing timely. The MMR revealed that the percent of lottery projects that completed applicant approvals within six months decreased from 42% in FY22 to 32% in FY23; and the median time to finalize a lease for homeless placements in set-aside units in new construction increased from 203 days in FY22 to 243 days in FY23.
Improve Public Benefit access and retention. We urge the City Administration to address HRA staffing shortage, remove red tape, and bring technology options to ensure access to and applications for CityFHEPS payments and renewals, emergency rental assistance, cash aid, childcare, Medicaid, along with other benefits, are processed timely AND are not disrupted in transition to permanent housing. The recent MMR revealed that cash assistance application timeliness rate (30 days) decreased 53.5 % in FY23 compared to FY22. This type of severe delay not only impacts a low-income family’s income support, but in many cases the access to shelter allowance to reduce their rent costs.
Prioritize Access to Homebase Services by refraining from budget cuts, to ensure that families in the community have access to preventive service supports timely such emergency rental assistance, housing subsidies renewals, and legal assistance to avoid shelter entrance and continue the path to housing and economic mobility. In recent months, advocates have expressed concerns over the time that it takes for families to access Homebase essential services. Enforcing budget cuts will further exacerbate the waiting time to access emergency prevention in low-income communities increasing the likelihood of shelter entrance. The MMR reported that requests for rental emergency assistance applications went from 25,323 in FY22 to 49,216 in FY23.
Promote Well-being in Shelter:
The ongoing increase in cost-of-living significantly impacting vulnerable families with children and the severe delays in SNAP, cash aid, housing application approvals and the increase in emergency rental assistance applications call for immediate action by the City Administration. The Mayor’s Management Report serves as a reminder for the need to ensure that agencies like HRA, DHS and HPD be fully staffed and funded.
Thank you for your time and consideration on this critical issue for children’s health and well-being. We look forward to continuing to work with the City Council and Administration to make sure that all New York City families and children have access to the support they need to recover from the pandemic and thrive.