Thousands line up for food aid outside of Tropical Park
As a self-employed wedding photographer, Rosy Figueroa said that even on a good week, she and her husband struggle to pay their bills. So when Hurricane Irma swept through Florida, and bookings got canceled, there has been more of a strain on their already-tight budget.
When the Westchester woman heard about D-SNAP — the Department of Children and Families’ Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — she was quick to jump at the chance to get some financial help.
After waiting 10 hours in the blazing heat Friday, Figueroa received about $700 in the form of an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to use within the next 90 days for food.
“It was worth it enough to wait 10 hours,” she said. “Something is better than nothing and I am so grateful.”
Figueroa was among tens of thousands of people — 50,000 people showed up at just Tropical Park alone — over the last few days who camped out in snarling lines, braved the heat and in some cases, left empty-handed, after state officials closed food assistance centers.
The makeshift facilities were propped up to provide benefits for those who do not qualify for regular food stamps, but suffered a disaster-related loss because of Hurricane Irma.
The overwhelming response forced DCF to shut down several centers after law enforcement workers raised concerns about people suffering heat exhaustion and losing their tempers. The closures, however, left thousands in the lurch — angry, confused and wondering why DCF didn’t have a better system.
Enrique Gonzalez, a Hallandale Beach resident, said he waited from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines and left empty-handed.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It was so poorly organized. Maybe they didn’t expect so many people to show up and things went out of hand.”
Gonzalez, who works in construction, said he lost a refrigerator fully stocked with meat, cheese and other perishables and had unexpected expenses for things like shutters. “The average person doesn’t make enough to recover from all of that,” he said.
The agency hasn’t said yet when it would assign make-up days or what led to the chaotic scenes that played across the state. Jessica Sims, a DCF spokeswoman, told the Miami Herald there is not an exact timeline for when the agency would reopen any center. In an email, she said it would be “later this month.”
When asked how the agency would better prepare to handle future assistance centers — or if they were caught off guard by the onslaught of applicants — she did not comment.
“DCF is working closely with our local partners, including law enforcement, to ensure the operations are as safe and efficient as possible,” Sims said. While there are no centers currently opened, applicants are being encouraged to preregister online.
The response comes as no surprise to the United Way’s Yanet Obarrio Sanchez, who says 58 percent of Miami-Dade households — that’s roughly 493,485 households — are in poverty or barely making ends meet.
“When you have mechanics, hairdressers, preschool teachers, retail workers, or small business owners losing hours, being cut off of work, some for a week, that’s food off the table. That can mean an entire paycheck,” Sanchez said. “So when they see that they can get food for the next few weeks, absolutely they are going to stand in the line.”
According to the United Way’s 2017 ALICE Report — which uses 2015 data to establish a county income threshold based on a family’s “household survival budget” — 21 percent of households in Miami-Dade are below the poverty level, and 37 percent of households have little or no savings and are one emergency from falling into poverty.
“The multitudes who showed up at the centers were people that make more than the federal poverty level, yet they lost most of their food, spent money on supplies, and perhaps didn’t get a credit from FEMA,” Sanchez said. “For many of those people, this hurricane was that one emergency away.”
For Alí R. Bustamante, a social and economic policy expert at Florida International University, Hurricane Irma “created a catalyst for those families that are eligible for benefits, but typically don’t collect them and choose to make ends meet without it.”
“It created a very dark moment of need, one that they couldn’t deal with as they typically do by themselves,” Bustamante said, noting that 20 percent of Floridians qualify for food stamps, yet only 14 percent collect them.
Based on those statistics alone, Bustamante said the state should have anticipated extreme interest in cashing in on benefits. They could have planned better by adding temporary staff to meet the potential demand, he said.
“When we talk about hurricanes, we do this ourselves in our home — we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. DCF should have done that as well.”