DCF, USDA failed to accommodate the disabled for food stamp distribution, suit alleges

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The Department of Children and Families and the USDA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to make accommodations for disabled people during its emergency food stamp distribution earlier this month, the University of Miami Health Rights Clinic alleges in a lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of two local advocacy groups and two men with disabilities.

The 45-page suit, filed in federal court Thursday afternoon, asks for the agency to implement the USDA’s best practices and offer alternatives for people who cannot wait on long lines to apply for much needed assistance.

The federal department that handles food stamps offers several alternatives for those with disabilities or the elderly other than the large sites that garnered thousands of people in October. The law clinic is proposing smaller, satellite application sites in neighborhoods, special public transportation, home visits and Skype interviews.

“We want people to be treated humanely and with dignity,” JoNel Newman, director of the UM law clinic, said.

The plaintiffs are: Miami Workers Center, New Florida Majority, Fulgencio Gallo and Richard Caldas, two men who represent a class of individuals with disabilities. The listed defendants are: Mike Carroll, in his official capacity as secretary of DCF; Sonny Perdue, in his official capacity as secretary of the USDA and the USDA itself.

Earlier this month, DCF opened four food assistance centers in Miami-Dade and three in Broward for people who don’t regularly receive food stamps, but took a hit from Hurricane Irma and needed help. The centers were so popular — Tropical Park alone drew about 50,000 people in a single day — that at law enforcement’s request, some were shut down.

The distribution drew criticism from people who waited hours to get emergency DSNAP benefits, only to be turned away. Many of the people were elderly and had disabilities.

The law clinic and the advocacy groups wrote a scathing letter to the agency demanding several actions be taken to make the distribution equal for everyone.

Newman said DCF never responded. Instead, the agency announced it would have a three-day distribution event from Nov. 7 -9 at one location in Miami-Dade and one in Broward. . The Miami-Dade site will be at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. The Broward distribution will be at BB&T Center in Sunrise.

Newman said that wasn’t good enough.

“I called and the only accommodation they are offering for people with disabilities is for them to send a representative,” she said. “Not everyone can send someone.”

The lawsuit contends the agency and USDA were aware of the problems but did nothing to fix them.

DCF spokeswoman, Jessica Sims, said in an email Thursday night, that “special accommodations have been made available to the elderly and disabled at the each site.’’ She didn’t elaborate.

She said the agency is reviewing the complaint, and noted that DCF has distributed more than $1.3 billion in emergency food stamps since Hurricane Irma hit the state in September. She also said the agency complies with USDA guidelines.

The lawsuit includes two lengthy declarations from two of the clinic’s clients who could not get the benefits in the first distribution.

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Richard Caldas, who lives in an apartment in Kendall, said getting to Hard Rock Stadium is impossible given his disabilities. To go the 30 miles, he would have to take two buses and a train.

“I cannot navigate a crowd,’’ wrote Caldas, who says he suffers from panic attacks.

Caldas said he can’t work because of his disabilities and he survives by renting out space in his apartment. He ends up with about $150 a month for groceries. Because Irma knocked out his electricity, he lost his food.

“I wanted to apply for DSNAP benefits very much because I have difficulty making ends meet in a usual month, and without replacement food, I face hunger,” he wrote.

The other man, Fulgencio Gallo has similar concerns. He said as a refugee from Cuba, who at one time was held as a political prisoner, he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other issues that make standing in line impossible.

He said he, his wife and child with disabilities live on his son’s disability check and his wife’s paycheck. Hurricane Irma brought on extra expenses including $1,000 to fix water damage. He said he stood in line during the first distribution event for seven hours, but realized he wasn’t getting anywhere and left.

“I did not see or hear any staff asking anyone in the line if they had disabilities and need to be moved to the front of the line,” he said.

Newman said the suit does not seek monetary gain; it wants the process changed.

“We want the problem fixed,” she said.

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