When Maria Diez tried to apply for emergency food assistance after Hurricane Irma last month, long lines and the registration site’s unexpected shutdown kept her away.
So when the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP, reopened a registration site in Miami Gardens on Tuesday, the 35-year-old mother of two decided she wouldn’t waste her second chance.
She called out of work and roused her 18-year old son Eduardo in their Hialeah home at 4 a.m. In the dark, they drove to Hard Rock Stadium where the registration site was to open at 7 a.m. But they soon found several hundred others had the same idea.
“The moment we got to this gate, it looked like the scene from the Lion King when Simba was in the middle of the stampede,” her son said.
By mid-morning, a line of thousands had assembled outside the stadium, as the Department of Children and Families began to process a second round of applications for emergency food assistance after Hurricane Irma. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 11,700 applications had been processed, Miami-Dade DCF spokeswoman Beatriz Lopez said.
At the BB&T Center in Sunrise, the wait was similarly long, with lines forming in the hot sun. Jude Bernardain, standing outside for more than two hours, said it was his fourth time trying to apply for the emergency food assistance program in person.
Tens of thousands of people showed up last month when the agency opened four assistance centers in Miami-Dade and three in Broward, overwhelming the sites to the point of closing early on some days.
To satisfy the still unmet need for food assistance, DCF said it would reopen two sites — one in Miami-Dade and one in Broward at the BB&T Center — for a second round Tuesday through Thursday, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
DCF said it was taking some efforts to alleviate the long waits this time around, including special accommodations for people with disabilities and workers to direct traffic control. The agency said it would also assign specific days for registering based on a person’s last name. But the agency applied the same staggered strategy during the first round to its Broward sites, which also had to shutter because of the outsized demand.
Several legal groups, including the University of Miami Health Rights Clinic, sued DCF over the accessibility of the lines for those with disabilities. Advocates want people homebound by their disabilities to have the option to do the benefits interview over the phone. The agency that would allow phone interviews, the USDA, has never done so.
The USDA has until November 16 to decide if phone interviews, which the department said come with more fraud concerns, are acceptable. In the meantime, anyone who pre-registered for D-SNAP benefits and couldn’t wait in line for benefits because of their disability, as well as anyone in Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe or Pasco who pre-registers before November 9, will be on the list for phone interviews, if they are allowed.
DCF and the law clinic are working to find a solution for people who are blocked from pre-registering because they don’t have a valid Florida ID. When applying in person there are multiple options to prove residency, but the online form does not progress without a Florida ID.
It’s unclear how many people were held back from applying for benefits because of their disability, but JoNel Newman, head of the law clinic, said “it’s difficult for me to think it isn’t somewhere in the thousands.”
On Tuesday morning, Diez wasn’t the only one trying to apply a second time.
“Wow, this line goes all the way around,” said Rudy Fojon, 24, as he pushed his 8-month-old daughter Layla’s gray stroller over the curb around the stadium looking for the end of the line.
Fojon, who lives with his girlfriend and daughter in North Miami, said he tried three weeks ago to apply for D-SNAP at two sites in Hialeah and Homestead, even waiting six hours at the second location before DCF turned him away.
“The lines were just terrible,” he said. “We waited all that time for no reason.”
On Tuesday morning, he came prepared, packing drinks and trail mix and an umbrella for the punishing sun. “Hopefully now we’ll be able to get something out of it,” he said.
Dozens of Food for Florida staffers could be seen handing out water bottles Tuesday morning to applicants as they shuffled forward in line. But the bottles and many applicants’ umbrellas weren’t enough to combat the heat as the sun rose.
By early afternoon, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue responded to six medical calls, several for fainting and light-headedness. One person was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, said spokesman Lt. Felipe Lay.
“People should bring water, and should prepare to hydrate themselves,” he warned. “Bring umbrellas if you can.”
But Candra Cano, 48, who held a water bottle in the crook of her arm, said she was afraid to drink all of her water because she didn’t want to lose her place in line.
She briefly left to go to the portable bathrooms set up along the perimeter but said she had trouble persuading the workers to let her return to where she had been standing.
“They kept saying, ‘You’re not in the line, you’re not in the line,’ ” she recalled. “After that, I didn’t want to go.”
The heat and long lines also drew some people interested in making the most of the situation. Loretha Payne, 55, pushed a cooler filled with soda and Gatorade, selling the drinks for $2 each in line. Payne said she already had food stamps, but had gone to the store the night before to buy three cases of the soft drinks to turn a small profit and make others’ waits easier.
“I ain’t trying to be greedy,” she said. “I just want to help put a meal on our table for Thanksgiving.”
Diez eventually got her food benefits card around 8:30 a.m., four hours after she and her son had lined up outside the stadium. In about 72 hours, she said, she expected to see about $1,000 on the card for her and her two sons to purchase groceries.
The first thing she said she plans to do with the money is “getting this boy some food,” she said, slapping teenage Eduardo’s stomach fondly. Oxtail is his favorite dish, he volunteered.
But there were limits to what she planned to make for her children’s meal, she said. Her 7-year-old son loves sushi, “but we’re not buying no sushi,” she said, laughing. “He’s got to wait till payday for that.”
WLRN reporter Caitie Switalski contributed to this report.
If you’re trying to pre-register and don’t have a valid Florida ID, staffers at the The Workers Center in Miami ask that you email email@example.com or call 305-759-8717 x 40 for help and more information.