Anger and frustration as emergency food aid closes early at Hard Rock Stadium
Lucia Garcia sat in traffic for nearly two hours Wednesday afternoon traveling from west Miami-Dade to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens to get emergency food stamps stemming from losses related to Hurricane Irma.
Her trek proved futile. Garcia, 61, who is diabetic, arrived before the scheduled 6 p.m. closing time to find the stadium gates closed. Officials from the Florida Department of Families and Children, which administers the program, had shut down the line at about 2:30 p.m. because they said they had reached capacity.
“It’s a disaster. It’s not fair,” said Garcia, who added her home suffered roof damage during Hurricane Irma and she was in need of some help. “I have my job, but I have the right to the money.”
Wednesday wasn’t the first time Garcia tried to get post-Hurricane Irma emergency food stamps through the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In October, when DCF opened four sites in Miami-Dade and three in Broward, Garcia waited eight hours at Tamiami Park before being turned away.
“And only one place for all these people?” Garcia said gesturing to the crowd of people who refused to leave Wednesday evening. “Why don’t you send a check to the people who applied online?”
The University of Miami Law Clinic, which last week sued the state agency contending that DCF had not adequately provided for disabled people as required by federal law, also wasn’t happy to learn the agency shuttered the Hard Rock site.
“We are deeply troubled by the reports that DCF shut down the Hard Rock site today … and by the numerous medical emergencies in Miami-Dade and Broward caused by long lines, no water or other human comforts, and heat stroke. Individuals are having to make the impossible choice between sacrificing their health and well-being and, for some, aggravating their disabilities, in order to secure food they desperately need,” JoNel Newman, director of the law clinic, wrote in an email Wednesday to DCF and the USDA.
The D-SNAP program is for people who are not currently receiving food stamps but incurred extra expenses or income loss in the hurricane. The program deals only with the period from Sept. 5 through Oct. 4. DCF says it has given out more than $1.35 billion in disaster food assistance to three million Florida families because of Irma.
While people were shut out at Hard Rock, others contended with long lines at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. DCF had scheduled the two sites to be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday to give people a second chance at emergency food benefits.
Last month, tens of thousands of people — many of them elderly and disabled — showed up for help but didn’t get it after the state closed the sites in the face of overwhelming demand. Many of the people suffered heat-related illnesses, including dehydration.
DCF officials said before reopening the sites this week, they would make efforts to alleviate the long waits. They designated special accommodations and lines for people with disabilities and assigned workers to direct traffic. The agency also said it would assign specific days for registering based on a person’s last name.
On Tuesday, thousands of people showed up at both sites, reminiscent of the first go-round.
Despite long waits and some heat-related emergency calls, Miami-Dade processed nearly 12,000 applications and Broward processed about 17,000 on Wednesday, according to DCF. The agency confirmed Wednesday evening there were 35 calls for medical assistance at the Sunrise site, with 13 people transported for treatment. DCF did not have Miami-Dade numbers; Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said the department received “multiple calls of people feeling weak and dizzy throughout the day” in the Hard Rock lines.
Those in line before 2:30 p.m. had their applications processed, but applicants who showed up after that were told to return Thursday, Miami-Dade DCF spokeswoman Beatriz Lopez said.
A database issue after 1 p.m. forced the Miami-Dade site to transition to slower paper applications instead of the online pre-registrations some applicants had completed before standing in line, Lopez said. “That is the reason why we reached capacity earlier in the day.”
Lopez said the agency expects the computer issue to have been fixed by Thursday morning.
At the Sunrise site, a similar computer glitch slowed the lines snaking through the parking lot and into the Florida Panthers arena, stalling thousands in the torrid sun.
“While the online system encountered technical difficulties, processing seamlessly continued with the transition to paper applications and applicants at the center continued to be served,” DCF spokeswoman Paige Patterson-Hughes said in an email. “Online processing has resumed.”
At both sites, fire rescue crews were called to check on people who fell ill in line.
Shortly before 3 p.m., one woman vomited but refused to move because she feared losing her place in line at the BB&T Center, which she staked out at 9 a.m.
“Our crews are treating people right there at the scene,” Sunrise Fire Rescue spokeswoman Danielle Digiacomo said. “Many are indeed feeling some discomfort.”