Allen Savage is a friend of mine. He helps me make tasteless music video parodies like this, and this, working usually for free on Sunday afternoons. He's appeared in this newspaper as a model many times. Stressed out by the long illness and subsequent death of his grandmother, out of a radio job he held for a few decades, he is also on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, now known as SNAP, formerly called food stamps.
Since June, Savage has called me several times for help in getting his benefit. His girlfriend, September Patton, has the same problem. Boiled down: The Baltimore City Department of Social Services' office at 5818 Reisterstown Road is impossible. They fail to notify him of a pending cut-off, then they don't answer the phone.
In early June, I checked Savage's story. Just as he told me, the telephone number to the social services office at first rang out after many rings and on another try played a message saying they were too busy and to "please call back during non-peak times." I eventually called the main number downtown and left a message for the Social Services director, David Thompson, which was not returned.
Savage was still having trouble on July 13, and by then Patton was being cut off from her SNAP benefit. Again I tried calling the Reisterstown Road office a few times, then called the next day. I was eventually put on hold amid fast-talking messages suggesting I apply online or contact my case worker. After several minutes of that I hung up.
I told Savage, "Hey, it's progress: At least I could get put on hold."
SNAP is a key benefit for poor people in America. Coming on a monthly allotment loaded on an electronic benefits card, the benefit was increased after the 2008 financial crash and then pared back at the beginning of 2014. After the January cut, the benefit is $1.40 per meal.
People who apply to get the benefit must recertify every six months, because nobody wants the government giving out food vouchers to people who aren't sufficiently destitute. In Northeast Baltimore, SNAP benefits appear to be easy to get but hard to keep, as people forget to recertify and the social services office forgets to remind them—or just blows them off. In Patton's case, the office set up an appointment for a recertification phone call but then did not make that call or answer Patton's calls, she says.
"Then I get a letter saying I wasn't recertified because they did not hear from me," Patton says. "That happened a couple times. I had to go to social services on Reisterstown Road."
You may think that going to the office in person would straighten the matter out. You may be wrong.
"Other times they would say I had an appointment to come in," Patton continues. "I would bring my stuff and have the appointment, then a couple days later I get a letter saying I was never there.
"You have to sign in a log," Patton says. "So how could they say that?"
This kind of trouble is not especially new. Savage has a letter from Governor Martin O'Malley's office responding to (well, acknowledging) his complaints about SNAP recertification. In February of 2009, Peter Sabonis, chief counsel of Maryland Legal Aid, was complaining about the lack of enough state social services workers to process food stamp recertification (the link to his interview on WYPR's "Maryland Morning" no longer works, but some of it is quoted here—scroll down about a quarter of the way).
Patton says she returned from a family visit to Georgia in July to discover that both her $347 SNAP for her and her daughter, and her Medicaid benefits had been cut. "So now I am without medical benefits and the food," she told me in July.
In July, I asked Savage if he had contacted a case worker. He emailed me back: "Yes, but nobody answers any call, they did the same thing to me before."
I called the main social services office again. Thompson was not available but I reached Clarence Brown (the public information officer who the secretary announced as "Constituent Services Director") and told told him who I am and what I had heard from Savage and Patton, and asked if there might not be a larger, more systemic problem that might merit some news coverage. Or at least maybe a problem with the management of that particular office.
"I'm not even sure there is a problem," Brown told me, taking their information.
Brown followed up with Patton, checked her status, and told her she would have to reapply because, she says, "their records show I never sent a packet that was sent to me."
Patton says she sent it. She says Brown told her he could not help her. "I said, What's your job then? I said, Who is gonna be held accountable? Every six months I have this problem. It's not just me, it's other people. And he said he doesn't have an answer.
"I said, Who is gonna fix this so they answer the phone? He said, I don't have answers for you."
Patton got her benefits reestablished but missed the month of July. In August, Savage was cut off as well. He spent frustrating hours and reapplied, eventually getting a half-month's worth—about $75. He says he usually gets $189's worth.
"I don't want special treatment. I just want the treatment I'm supposed to get," Savage says. "I'm not some lazybones on welfare all my life. I worked for BAL for 28 years straight."
Savage's friend Holly Black has had the same problems as Savage and Patton. She says: "[If] they have a delay or if they forget to put your information in the computer, like maybe 15 to 20 days could go by; nobody contacts you. Every time you call you get an answering machine. So they maybe take half of your allotment. And it's because they messed up. So if you get $200 a month, they maybe give you $100 or $125. And they say you'll get your full allotment next month. It's through no fault of your own."
Black, a mother of four whose kidneys failed eight years ago, receives Social Security Disability and SNAP. She needs dialysis three times a week.
The recertification problem happens "quite often," she says. "And like I said, when you try to call them and verify, you are told by a computer or receptionist that they will get back in touch with you. So you leave a message. I left 15 messages in a day one time just to see if they're gonna call me back."
They didn’t, she says.
"So you end up going there," Black says. "They say if they miss [an appointment or deadline] it's still my responsibility."
Black says social services schedules appointments for her during the time she needs to take dialysis. Two years ago, Black says, she missed an orientation appointment that would have allowed her to take residence in a four-bedroom house. She missed it because she was on dialysis. The appointment was never rescheduled. She says she checked recently and found she's back down to 800th on the waiting list for housing.
"They're not responsible for their part," Black says. "You should get a receipt. When you go to social services they tell you they have all your information . . . but by them not giving you a receipt you have no proof. If you stand there trying to argue about getting a receipt, they say no one is working in that area right now. You go there early in the morning and you might not get out until closing time.
"It's very hectic."