The eighth floor of the D.C. public welfare office took on a circus-like air recently but no one was amused as dozens of bewildered residents attended a public meeting to discuss changes in their food stamp benefits.
A steady stream of elderly men and women poured from the elevators, leaning heavily on walkers and canes. Young girls dragged toddlers by the hand or jiggled cranky infants in their arms, as legal aid attorneys walked through the crowd waving forms to sign up people who wanted help.
The noisy audience crowded into Room 8000, the Fair Hearing conference room.
The meeting was called to discuss the problems of people whose benefits have been reduced or eliminated altogether under new food stamp guidelines.
James Horton, director of the Fair Hearing Office, began the meeting by holding a preliminary discussion to separate people with legitimate complaints from persons who were just unhappy with overall changes in the food stamp program.
No one, however, was allowed to discuss individual cases, although officials did not tell them in advance that such questions would not be accepted. One man who press Horton for information about his rights was threatened with ejection.
"The federal government controls how many food stamps you get and how you get them," Horton told the crowd. "If you're hurt by the (Food Stamp Act), all we can tell you is to go to the federal government or your congressman and try to get it changed."
Horton told the group that the meeting had been called because the Department of Human Resources, which administers the city's food stamp program, did not have enough officers to complete individual hearings within the 60-day limit required under the law. Because it might take another four or five months to hold individual hearings, Horton proposed that those with complaints sign up for group hearings that day.
However, attorneys at the hearing proteste that the federal guidelines allow group hearings only when "individual issues of fact" are not being questioned. Persons challenging benefit changes are also allowed to see "all documents and records" used by the state to "establish the household's ineligibility or eligibility," they said.
In an interview later, Horton said he would have individually questioned all persons who consented to a class hearing that morning.
Several people complained that they already had waited four months for this meeting, but nearly all asked that individual hearings be scheduled.
Michael Schuster, an attorney with Legal Counsel for the Elderly, sad about 70 people asked for legal help when their their individual hearings are held. A dozen people agreed to a class hearing later that day and 120 of the 200 persons invited to the office did not show up.
Cynthia Jordan, one of the 12 people who agreed to a class hearing later that morning, said the hearing "was really a waste of time."
In April, Jordan said, her food stamps were reduced from $74 to $64 after her food stamp worker failed to include Jordan's newborn daughter, Trinity, in her budget. Jordan, who is 24, has two other children.
Before the problem could be resolved, Jordan said she learned that the worker had been transferred to another office. She said DHR workers told her "not to go to the other office because it wouldn't do no good." That's why she requested the hearing, Jordan said she was told she would have to start all over with another case worker or wait three months for an individual hearing.
Meanwhile in Room 8000, Cheryl Fish, a food stamp counselor with the Legal Counsel for the elderly, completed an interview with one of the several tearful persons who had stayed behind to seek legal help and to have the workers figure their correct food stamp benefits.
On the basis of their calculations, Fish said they found food stamp benefits had been reduced too much for some people and terminated for others who were still eligible for benefits.
"Will I have to wait long?" asked one elderly woman who nervously pulled at her straw-colored hair. "I can't live on $10 (worth of stamps) a month.
"Since 1973, I was getting $32 a month. Now they cut me down to $10.
Fish said later the woman's benefits had apparently been reduced too much.