Friday, September 02, 2005

Hurricane Shows Hole in Texas Welfare Safety Net

Today, in the Houston area, Welfare offices were flooded with Hurricane Refugees seeking Food Stamps. The offices were so overwhelmed that lines wrapped around the buildings.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has not hired any new permanent Case Workers in 4 years. And after announcing the time tables and scope of its plans to privatize most of the work that the agency does, and consolidating that work to 4 call centers (none of which will be in the Houston Region), staff have been flooding out the door. This month I joined that flood, and so am no longer with that agency either.

As things stood, the agency did not have sufficient staff to meet the needs of Texans, under normal circumstances. Now, the system is being stressed beyond its ability to cope with the demands placed upon it. August was the highest month ever for staff retiring and resigning, and now those who remain are asked to do more than ever.

This weekend, which was expected to be a three day weekend for those beleaguered workers, will now be more than a full time schedule at work.

On Saturday, Houston area offices will be opened from 8:00 am to 8 PM. On Sunday, they will be open from 10:00 am to 6 pm, and on Labor Day, they will again be opened from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.

The question that has to be asked at this point is, what things would be like if the Houston region had 30% of the staff it currently has, with fewer and smaller offices than it has today? You may say that this is a once in a life time event, but we had similar (though admittedly smaller scale) crises in 1994 and 2001, due to local area flooding. In those cases, we had the staff to handle the job, but we would not have been able to have handled it with the staff the agency plans on down-sizing to.

One thing's for sure, National Guardsmen do not know how to work a Food Stamp case, and issue benefits on an EBT Card.

There are a lot of people who never thought they would be applying for Food Stamps that were standing in line today. No one along the Gulf Coast should be too sure that it won't be them, one of these days.

Keep your eyes on this story over the next few weeks and months.

Refugees seeking food stamps, jobs

By Jesse W. Coleman Friday, September 2, 2005 2:39 PM CDT

Phyllis Waiters of New Orleans never believed she'd be applying for food stamps.

The mother of three adult children has worked all her life. Waiters and her husband spent many, many years working for Amstar Sugar Corp. (Domino Sugar).

But on Thursday and Friday, Waiters found herself among several hundred refugees from Louisiana trying to get foot stamps at the Texas Department of Human Services in Rosenberg.

Waiters is like several thousand New Orleans evacuees who are stranded in Rosenberg and other Texas locations after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Forced to leave her home Sunday as a result of a mandatory evacuation order, Waiters and eight family members, including her daughter and 3-year-old granddaughter, Mignon Nelson, came to Rosenberg to stay with extended family.

Five days later, a proud Waiters said she and her family feel as if they are a burden. She is trying to at least help with the food necessities until she can find shelter.

Waiters' predicament is that she did not bring a lot of cash with her, her credit cards are at their limits and she has funds in a New Orleans credit union that she cannot access.

"My husband is stuck in Florida in a similar situation," said Waiters, who also evacuated her home last year when Hurricane Ivan threatened the city.

"He (her husband) went to pick up one of our daughters from school."

Waiters was at the food stamp office in Rosenberg from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday, and returned Friday morning as the line grew longer.

The Rosenberg police and fire marshal were at location location Friday assisting. Police placed barricades up to keep the line orderly and controlled traffic in the area.

"Everything as been peaceful and orderly," said Carol Rees, public information officer for Rosenberg police Friday morning.

Rosenberg police along with other Rosenberg-Richmond businesses and neighbors, provided water, other refreshments and sandwiches for evacuees.

Among them was Richmond resident Wilson Sherrod, who distributed crackers and water for the kids.

"We just wanted to help," said Sherrod, who was joined by several other people.

That's what the state agencies are trying to do as well.

Gwen Robinson, a program manager for the Rosenberg office of the Texas Department of Human Services, said several hundred Louisiana residents applied for service at the Rosenberg office Thursday.

"The help we provide them is with our food stamp program, and if they are here and they don't have access to their income or other resources, they need food assistance and then that's how we can help them," said Robinson.

She said they have seen some people who are living in shelters and some who are living with family and friends - all need assistance.

Robinson said when they are able to help, people are given food stamp debit cards that can be used in most grocery stores to purchase food.

Because of the disaster situation, they are going to work with refugees in every way possible and work as fast as possible to help.

"All of our employees are working overtime and they will be working overtime as long as we need to to deliver the services," said Robinson. "And it's not just in this office. All of our employees are working overtime trying to deliver services."

She said they are also trying to do all they can to help the residents of Fort Bend County.

"We doing our best to service both groups," said Robinson. "Our staff has been great dealing with all of our clients in the county as well as the people who have been displaced by the storm."

She said they just need everyone to be patient.

Robinson also praised local churches and other members of the community and law enforcement agencies who have been coming to the parking lot, serving refreshments and food for those people in need.

The visitors are also trying to find work.

Yolanda McLin, of the Worksource in Rosenberg, said more than 50 Louisiana evacuees came into the facility Thursday asking for assistance with employment.

"We have been busy, but not that busy," said McLin.

She said the Worksource's goal is to help people find work by getting people to work with the counselor, help with unemployment benefits and give referrals for jobs.

Waiters's story wasn't too different than the many, many other people at the food stamp office.

Tyrone Alexander, a construction supply employee, evacuated with his wife, daughter and nephew and are staying with relatives in Rosenberg. Patrice August-Louper, an independent Realtor who fled the storm with her daughter, and Tracy Hill, a shipyard contractor, all are among the people looking for a way to purchase food.