The government makes it way too hard to apply for benefits

Problems with food stamp recertification are a harsh reality for me. 

I went to the Department of Human Services to be recertified for food stamps on three different days because they lost or couldn’t find my paperwork. I was told that I needed to reapply. This made me frustrated and angry. Once my paperwork was found, the intake worker asked me, “why don’t you get a job and stop depending on the system.”  I explained to her that I have worked for years — but my paychecks still don’t cover all the bills.

The worker’s tone really upset me. So many people will not apply for food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid because of the way some are treated when we step into the DHS office. Even if you never worked, you are still entitled to apply for benefits. This is what a safety net is all about – helping people in need. I believe that the personnel should be better trained in dealing with the public. They also need to have compassion for people they’re supposed to help. 

It took me 10 years before I would go into a DHS “services” office again. I was homeless and treated very badly when I applied for benefits the first time around. When I finally applied again, the intake worker asked me why it took me so long. I told her what had happened and she assured me that this would not happen again. Well, that made me feel better.  We all need to eat and intake workers need to understand this. Food stamps, Medicaid and TANF are for everyone who is approved to receive them, regardless of their age, color, sex and creed. I applaud the workers who make this transition easy for others.

To apply for TANF, food stamps and Medicaid, you need to fill out a very long packet. It is so annoying. They seem to ask the same questions over and over in the packet. Why is this? Many years ago, applying for benefits only required about five sheets of paperwork. Since then, it has doubled. Just to apply for food stamps has become a nuisance. If government agencies cut down on the paperwork, maybe more people would get the help they need.

When I became homeless I lived on the streets for four years and in a shelter for another four years. This whole time I was homeless, I didn’t apply for food stamps because of the way I was treated before. Without food stamps, it was impossible to eat well-balanced meals. I became really sick and was hospitalized twice for malnutrition.  Not having proper nutrition can cause severe health problems.

I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes during this time, eating what the shelter offered. They served chicken and rice every day. Not wanting to become a diabetic, I had to make some changes in my diet, but I couldn’t without food stamps. Every day I faced the scary situation of figuring out what and when I was going to eat. I was always hungry, but going to DHS is a drag. You can get to the office around 8:15 a.m., and expect to stay all day. I was living in a shelter and if I was not back by 4 p.m. I would lose my bed. I had to decide whether to lose my bed or apply for assistance. I chose to apply for assistance, because I needed to eat.

There should be a better way to serve the people.  Sure, they say mail in your application, but when you do this it gets lost or takes longer to process. Workers need to be retrained. We need more workers, as well, to help with the caseload. If you feel you can’t walk into a DHS office because of the way you were treated before, take someone with you. We all have rights.

I have since received housing and food stamps and will graduate from the University of the District of Columbia in May 2022. I hope that after graduation I can help others, as I was helped.

Sheila White is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.