By Brendan Krisel, Patch Staff
June 26, 2019
A broad coalition of activist groups, scholars and benefits recipients are calling on the city to reverse its decision to close a food stamp distribution center in Central Harlem.
Dozens of advocacy groups sent letters to the city Human Resources Administration and Mayor Bill de Blasio to warn of the negative effects of closing the St. Nicholas Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Center on West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Junior and Malcolm X boulevards. More than 380 people have also signed on to a petition asking the city to keep the center open. The city plans to close the office on Friday, June 28.
When the center closes, food stamps recipients will have to trek nearly one mile to a center on Third Avenue and East 126th Street. The travel may be too difficult or expensive for many benefits recipients, Kiana Davis, a benefits advocate at the Urban Justice Center, said. Davis is also concerned that closing the food stamps office may overwhelm the staff at the Third Avenue site with new clients.
The West 125th Street center services 25,000 households per year, many of which include elderly people and children, advocates said. According to data city data requested by advocates, the East Harlem center processed more cases than the West 125th Street center did in Sept. 2018, which is why advocates worry about the facility's ability to take on the extra clients.
Advocates also claim that the city is using deceptive statistics to justify the center's closing. The city claims that the percentage of SNAP applications submitted online increased from 23% in 2013 to 87% in 2019. Advocates say the city is glossing over the fact that those numbers include people who use kiosks located inside SNAP centers.
"Technological advancements have made SNAP more accessible for many New Yorkers, but cutting a physical center reduces SNAP for many more New Yorkers. It's not a one-for-one tradeoff," Davis said.
A spokesman for the City Human Resources Association said that of the SNAP recipients who apply online, 20% are done using in-office kiosks. The spokesman also said that these kiosks will remain in the West 125th Street location after the center is closed.
Davis told Patch that the dozens of letters to the HRA from groups such as the Urban Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, Women in Need and the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute have received no formal response. Citing the city's closure of two SNAP facilities in Brooklyn last year and recent announcement to cut hours at centers citywide, Davis said: "This feels undeniably like part of a attempt on the city's part to shrink services for food stamp recipients overall."
The union representing office workers at Human Resources Administration offices, Local 1549 of DC 37, has also voiced concerns about the city's plan to close the Harlem center. Union reps say that the city has not released any specific data about usage at the Harlem center, and claims that as many as half of the benefits recipients using online services do so at the physical center.
The union is also concerned that the city's goal of closing the center is to cut the HRA's number of employees.
"Our positions, as you know, have been subjected to attrition... Vital services should be about clients, not money," Local 1549 President Eddie Rodriguez wrote in a letter to HRA Commissioner Steven Banks.
The city sees the closure of the West 125th Street center and the relocation of cases to the East Harlem as a consolidation of two underutilized facilities, an HRA spokesman said. Benefits recipients will not be losing any services, the spokesman said. Foot traffic at food stamps offices citywide has decreased 50 percent since 2014, the spokesman said.
"As we reorganize services in Harlem, we're phasing out components of this underutilized center, reflecting how New Yorkers are accessing their benefits: 87 percent are choosing to access benefits through the ACCESS HRA app, and 97 percent are conducting SNAP interviews over the phone," HRA spokesman Isaac McGinn said in a statement. "We are working with local clients to ensure continued access to services via the app or the closest center, which is only a few blocks away."