Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lufkin Daily News: Running on Empty

Linda Smelley, executive director of CISC, stands next to a table loaded with jars of peanut butter and piles of snacks destined for the Backpack Buddy program, feeding poor school children who would normally go without adequate food at home over the weekend.

Running on empty
State cutbacks to food stamp staffing mean a 40-day wait for stamps, creating a need for food that leaves the hungry -- and the Christian Information and Service Center -- running on empty

Staff writer

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The hungry are tightening their belts in Angelina County as state social service cutbacks leave them waiting up to 40 days for food stamps, according to the director of the largest food bank in the county.

Hungry people arriving at her door are often stuck in a bureaucratic no man's land, said Linda Smelley, executive director of the Christian Information and Service Center. The center is funded by grants and donations from citizens and churches.

Charles Lennox, 22, who suffers from cerebral palsy, works sorting cans at CISC every day, accompanied by his mother, Patricia. The family is giving to others in return for the help they got, Linda Smelley, CISC executive director, says.

Many people don't meet the state's complex formula for "emergency need" status, or a crisis situation has pushed them to a desperate level, beyond the state's response capability, she said.

Like the mother who didn't qualify for emergency help — grocery debit cards handed out within 24 hours — because "on paper" she was getting child support, meaning she had too much income.

"But she hadn't been getting it. If the check doesn't come, her kids go hungry," Smelley said.

Boxes of food await distribution at CISC, the largest food bank in Angelina County. Linda Smelley, executive director, says cash donations are desperately needed to offset the influx of emergency food handouts to people on lengthy food stamp waiting lists.

Qualifying for an emergency card means a person is not merely in crisis, but among the poorest of the poor. It's a situation that state Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) described last week as "horrible."

"You can't make more than $150 a month, or have liquid assets of more than $100. You really have to be homeless," he said.

That leaves many hovering between homelessness and stability to fall through the cracks, waiting for benefits to come through.

A mother of four arrived at CISC two weeks ago looking for help. She'd planned to squeak by waiting to qualify, trusting her children would get free breakfasts and lunches through a school program. But all four came down sick, and had to stay home.

Boxes and baskets of produce, bread and canned goods wait to be handed out in the daily food distribution line at CISC. Staff photo by Joel Andrews. In center photo, Charles Lennox, 22, who suffers from cerebral palsy, works sorting cans at CISC every day, accompanied by his mother, Patricia. The family is giving to others in return for the help they got, Linda Smelley, CISC executive director, says. In photo at right, Linda Smelley, executive director of CISC, stands next to a table loaded with jars of peanut butter and piles of snacks destined for the Backpack Buddy program, feeding poor school children who would normally go without adequate food at home over the weekend.

"She didn't have any food in the house, and didn't know what to do," Smelley said. "What do they do? What do the children do? Mothers count on them to have a big lunch at school and just stretch it until the next day. I know they're starving."

In 2003, the 78th Legislature began a system-wide restructuring of social services, with food stamp privatized call centers set for a summer 2006 rollout. That rollout has since stalled.

In anticipation of the rollout, the state cut 11 jobs at the Lufkin food stamp office, one of many East Texas centers to lose staff or be closed, according to a news release from the Texas State Employees Union in February.

Additional staff took early retirement or left for other jobs ahead of the rollout, creating a critical low point for staff numbers in April, McReynolds said.

"As a result, caseloads became impossible," he said. "When the state stuttered (on the rollout), I wanted to jerk the contract. I wasn't for doing away with our state employees in the first place."

Ted Hughes, spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which administers the food stamp program, said the wait time is 18 days, not 40.

"It's certainly not 18 days," Smelley said. "Not here ... I've seen the paperwork."

Clients come to her shaky, angry and sad, Shelley said. She can tell by their hair and skin they're not eating enough. Women who appear to be in their 70s are closer to 50, bodies ravaged by hunger and hard lives.

One woman in particular stays on her mind, Smelley said — a woman she described as looking "like a skeleton." State workers allegedly told the woman she would have to wait 40 days to qualify, Smelley said.

Smelley said her call to the local food stamp office confirmed it. An employee there told her they were looking to hire six new people, in hopes of trimming the wait to 30 days, she said.

Hughes didn't have a clear answer for people who don't meet emergency guidelines, but are still hungry.

"I don't know the answer to that question. There's an assumption that they will go ... and talk with one of our caseworkers. They would refer them to a food pantry or a shelter, or they may be able to arrange for some emergency food ...," Hughes said.

The food stamp office's emergency food pantry went by the wayside, the victim of short staffing, according to a former employee who asked his name not be used.

"It got so overwhelming they didn't really have time to go over and pick up food to supply the pantry. It was not a state requirement, it was something we did ... just wanting to help the people," he said.

Calls by The Lufkin Daily News to confirm the information were referred to Beaumont and then to Austin. Hughes said he did not have firsthand knowledge on the workings of the Lufkin office.

McReynolds called for "transparency" in the system, to media and the public. He failed to get a direct answer at the local level on questions about a particular job position, he said.

Two caseworker openings for Lufkin were posted on the state Web page Friday. They were listed as "temporary," expected to last six months.

Applying can be so difficult, caseworkers from the Burke Center in Lufkin, an outpatient drug and mental health center, often accompany the more confused clients to the food bank, Smelley said.

"Caseworkers are worried. They see how hungry people are. The paperwork just floors (clients). They're scared. We calm them down and tell them, 'You're not going to be hungry,'" Smelley said.

CISC Executive Director Linda Smelley

For many of them, mostly uneducated, often homeless, wading through red tape is as mystifying as filling out a tax return for the average person, she said. And thinking the homeless will be able to use the Internet, a fax machine or make lengthy call center applications is not realistic, she said.

State employees are the heroes, McReynolds emphasized, many veterans continuing to help people in need as the system rocks around them. Some employees have been hired back, and everyone is working to reduce the response time as fast as possible, he said, "even though it seems like they've been slapped by the state."


Legislative response

McReynolds said the Legislature needs to look the system over when it meets in January, possibly throwing out the contract with Accenture, the private company hired to run the call centers.

The "black hole" episode is one symptom of a system that was too much, too soon, he said. In that case, hundreds of faxed documents, including food stamp applications, were sent to a Seattle warehouse after applicants used what was an erroneous fax number on forms created by Accenture, according to a June report in the Houston Chronicle.

"If you hire someone to do a job and they're incapable of doing a job, for crying out loud break the contract and go to Plan B," McReynolds said. "I was furious to hear they were rolling this thing out and no one's getting served. We're going to call them all up and we'll settle this when we get back (in session) in January."

Jody Anderson, a Republican running for McReynolds' District 12 seat, said McReynolds is not looking at the larger issue.

With part of the social service funding coming from the federal government, the state is fighting to catch up to new federally-mandated employment benchmarks, making it harder for Texas to meet the statistics as things are being recalibrated, he said.

"I think that's why it's slowing down," Anderson said. "We would be having that whether it would be privatized or not."

Trying to get the rollout online over the summer may have been bad timing, but it doesn't mean privatization itself is a bad idea, he said.

"I am in favor of the most efficient way to operate state government," Anderson said. "Many times privatization is the way to do that ... once they get the kinks worked out, I think the state will start seeing the savings they anticipated."

Anderson said CISC needs to be supported, regardless of anything else.

"If there's a need, this community responds to it, and that goes way beyond government," he said.

McReynolds said local state employees told him Friday the office needs computer upgrades and additional trained employees to trim response time.

"You want somebody that uses their head and their heart for those people who are most vulnerable in this society. Until the state sorts this out, that's probably not going to happen," McReynolds said. "Eighteen days is a long time. That's kind of the bottom line."


Needs continue

As the debate goes on, the hungry continue to stream to CISC's door. On Friday, a man suffering from hepatitis arrived. Already gravely ill and in the system for medical care, he waited hours on a call to qualify for emergency food stamps.

"I truly believe this man is probably going to die. It's just a nightmare. You can get the general idea of what's happening," Smelley said. "They're so understaffed and the criteria for some of these people is so high, that an emergency to them and an emergency to the state are two different things. And that's the biggest problem."

Hundreds of school children are getting more to eat thanks to the Backpack Buddy program, sending food home on weekends with students. Still, there are children in class each week across the county deemed to be "starving," she said.

A look at the CISC food line, which often begins at 6 a.m. for a 9:15 a.m. opening, represents a cross section — of all ages, colors and backgrounds — of the hungry seen each year by the thousands. Smelley said every civic group, church and organization in Lufkin needs to get on board and give.

"It's become too big a ministry. The whole town should be involved," Smelley said. "It's heartbreaking. I think Lufkin doesn't know what's going on."

Donations to CISC go further in the form of money than food, Smelley said. The center is linked to food banks across the nation and has tremendous buying power, purchasing large loads of food for cents on the dollar.

To donate, write to CISC, P.O. Box 2621, Lufkin, TX, 75902, call (936) 634-2857, or e-mail Linda Smelley at linda-CISC@consolidated.net.

Ashley Cook's e-mail address is acook@coxnews.com.