Mary Holmes, a 55-year-old St. Louis resident with cancer and other health issues, says she has struggled to put food on the table for more than a month.
Holmes is dependent on food assistance, but she was unable to get through the state’s call center line to maintain her federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
When she calls to make the necessary arrangements, she found herself on hold for 4-7 hours, but she was never connected to a representative.
“I received a notice that my SNAP request was denied in February,” Holmes said in a statement. “Not having SNAP has been really hard. I barely have anything to eat.”
Holmes and another Missourian from Warren County filed a federal trial Tuesday against the Missouri Department of Social Services, alleging its ‘dysfunctional’ appeal line and food aid application process violated federal law and their constitutional rights.
Empower Missouri, a grassroots advocacy group, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed by the New York-based National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and Stinson LLP.
They are asking the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri to order the DSS to implement a number of procedural changes to bring the state into compliance with federal law. They are also asking for a preliminary injunction to maintain in-person DSS Resource Centers, especially to help those without internet access.
The lawsuit alleges that Holmes’ experience is far from an isolated one, and it cites comments from the DSS Facebook page of other SNAP candidates who said the shortest wait time was four hours. .
In order to obtain SNAP benefits or be recertified, residents must pass an interview. When candidates cannot reach a call center representative to complete their interview, their applications are rejected.
“Our clients and their children are not getting the food they desperately need, solely because they cannot reach anyone at our state agency,” said Eastern Missouri Legal Services attorney Katherine Holley, which serves low-income residents.
There are no appointments for interviews, Holley said. The state call center will call applicants at a random time. If candidates miss the call, they should try to call back and get another interview.
That was the experience of Holmes and LV, a Warren County resident, according to the lawsuit. Often, Holmes was the more than 600 callers in the queue, and her phone credits ran out before she could speak to a representative, the suit says.
DSS resource offices officially reopened to the public on May 17, but the lawsuit says the centers are “merely moot” because their hours are “extremely limited.” Less than a third of the 141 resource centers listed on the DSS website are open to the public five days a week, according to the lawsuit. More than half are open three days a week or less, and none are open after 5 p.m.
Holmes went to a resource center hoping to complete the necessary interview, but was told she had to go through the call center – which the lawsuit says happens ‘frequently’ when applicants attempt to obtain an in-person interview.
The lawsuit seeks an end to any center closures and reductions in staffing or hours until the state establishes an application process that would not violate applicants’ rights under the SNAP law.
As a member of US Bailout ActMissouri received $3.4 million for food stamp program administration costs, to be used by October 1, 2021. And for the next two fiscal years, Missouri will receive up to $6.2 million to help administer the program.
However, it is unclear how the state spends the funds.
The Department of Social Services did not respond to a request for comment.
“Hundreds of thousands of Missourians rely on SNAP to feed their families every month,” said Mallory Rusch, executive director, Empower Missouri. “It is inexcusable that individuals struggling to make ends meet face additional barriers to enrolling in SNAP due to the Missouri Department of Social Services.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.