Closure of Union Square benefits center leaves vulnerable NYers scrambling

“It’s up to them if they know how to read or don’t know how to read,” he said, pointing to the sign on the door telling people to go elsewhere. “That was probably inconvenient, but they were notified for the past month.”

The abrupt closure caused a wave of confusion in a system that’s already difficult to navigate for the roughly 1.8 million New Yorkers struggling to stay afloat on the city-managed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Some people were told their cases were transferred to a SNAP center on 125th Street, according to Roxanna Henry, a social worker at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center.

Others were sent to East 16th Street and told to use a self-service kiosk, but were not offered help with operating it. The East 16th Street location is described as being “self-service,” with a skeleton staff, rather than a full-service office like the Waverly location.

“They’re really just restricting access to benefits on the people themselves, because they simply don’t know how to use technology,” Henry said. “They’re ignoring the problem.”

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city shut down three SNAP centers in 2019: two in Brooklyn and one in Harlem. At the time, city officials argued, decreasing the agency’s physical footprint made sense with more New Yorkers conducting interviews on the phone and accessing benefits online, the Daily News reported. But there are perennial complaints about a buggy, difficult-to-use app and phone calls that often go unanswered. Showing up at an office where you can speak to someone face-to-face is often a last act of desperation, Henry said.

“When you go into the center, it’s because there is a crisis,” Henry said. “You wanna know why you can’t feed your kids, or what’s going on with your cash benefits.”

Clients often describe hostile behavior from city benefits workers and say their cases are regularly closed for no reason, a report from the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center found. These issues came to a head in 2018, when Jazmine Headly, who had been waiting for hours for help at a city HRA site, was arrested and had her baby ripped from her arms. She spent four nights on Rikers Island for sitting on the floor of a Brooklyn SNAP center. A video of her arrest went viral and she later won $625,000 in a settlement with the city.

Despite regular concerns about service at the Waverly SNAP Center, it was a known location for many homeless New Yorkers living on the streets or staying in lower Manhattan shelters. It was also the setting for a 1975 documentary about welfare.

“I don’t think they should close them,” said Bashiekh Wood, who said he was trying to figure out why his case had been closed and feared losing a housing voucher to get out of his shelter because of it. He had no luck addressing the issue using the app. “Sometimes you wanna talk to somebody.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Roxanna Henry.

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