D.C. residents wait to recharge their food stamp benefits or apply for new benefits at the Taylor Street Service Center. (Jason Andrew/For The Washington Post)

Low-income D.C. residents are not getting the help they need to buy groceries because of widespread problems with the District’s food stamp program, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court on Monday.

Brought by four individuals and the nonprofit safety net organization Bread for the City, the court filing details delays in processing applications and the elimination of benefits without warning in violation of federal law.

The “ongoing failures mean that households are deprived of desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families and suffer hunger as a result,” according to the lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, which has brought similar cases, including in New York, Maryland and Arizona.

Each month, thousands of D.C. residents apply for benefits from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as food stamps. As of May, about 120,000 people in roughly 70,000 households participated in the program run by the city’s Department of Human Services.

The trouble began last year, advocates for the poor say, when the city transitioned to a new computer system despite warnings of potential problems from the federal government, which pays for the program.

Before the rollout, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials recommended more testing to avoid backlogs and delays, and told the city that proceeding was “against our best advice” and that the city was moving ahead “at its own risk,” court records show.

Within a few months, federal government officials reported a series of errors, including inaccurate or missing benefits and a failure to send required notices to recipients about changes in their benefits. Instead of processing applications in 20 minutes through the old system, for instance, processing took 90 minutes, city caseworkers told federal officials.

“New case processing is often very error-prone and leads to system errors and the inability to process the case timely,” according to a March 2017 letter.

As recently as last month, the federal agency told Human Services in a follow-up letter, “we remain concerned about the customer complaints.”

On Monday, the deputy mayor for health and human services, HyeSook Chung, said: “There is no responsibility we take more seriously than the health and well-being of our residents. . . . Even as we make long-overdue improvements and overhaul District systems and processes to best serve our constituents, we take immense care to meet the needs of residents seeking assistance.”

Chung said in a statement that service center wait times have been reduced and that the number of households served daily has increased by 50 percent.

Frustration and hunger

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said Monday that he is frustrated that the city agency has “tried and failed to fix this problem” and that it should consider a new approach.

“The victims here are the people who are hungry in our city,” he said. “These folks are looking for help from our government to be able to eat.”

Under federal law, eligible needy families are supposed to receive food stamps within 30 days of filing an application. When a household’s benefits are reduced or eliminated, the city is also required to notify residents in advance so they can reapply or appeal.

In the District, low-income residents typically apply in person at one of five service centers, where applicants are also interviewed. Because of the backlog, residents often line up outside the centers as early as 5 a.m.

Attorneys in the case, including from the law firm Hogan Lovells, are seeking to bring the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of potentially hundreds of other poor residents affected by the reported glitches in the city’s system.

One of the plaintiffs, Tracey Ross, had received $194 per month in food stamps through June. Ross is a seasonal worker at Nationals Park, and her benefits were cut off last month without warning for “allegedly failing to apply to recertify.” Ross said she was never notified by the city as required by federal law that she needed to reapply, according to the lawsuit.

“It’s been hard to keep food in the house without food stamps when I’m also trying to pay my electricity bill and rent,” Ross said in a declaration filed in court.

Linda Murph, who works as a security guard, tried to reaffirm her eligibility for food stamps in April at the service center on H Street NE. Murph, who earns about $550 every two weeks, filed the paperwork and was told by a DHS employee that she was all set. The city has not processed her application, according to the lawsuit, and Murph has gone without food stamps since May.

Increased demand for food

The transition to the new computer system in October 2016 and associated problems coincided with a citywide surge in demand for food from Bread for the City. The number of households receiving emergency food packages increased by nearly 40 percent through May 2017 compared with the same period one year earlier, according to the organization.

As a result of the city’s policies, practices and “wrongdoing,” the organization says in the court filing that it “has diverted, is diverting, and will continue to divert scare resources” to needy residents whose food stamp benefits were “unnecessarily delayed or improperly processed.”

At a D.C. Council meeting in March, Legal Aid raised similar concerns about the transition to the new computer system that its representatives said is “wreaking havoc with the District’s most vulnerable residents as they continue to wait for hours at service centers and their benefits are terminated without notice.”

Legal Aid told council members that DHS officials have repeatedly refused to meet to discuss possible fixes.

“We have no information about steps the agency is taking to mitigate these problems and how our clients might be able to benefit from mitigation strategies.”