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LA County Is Being Sued For Delaying Food Assistance To Low-Income Families

FOOD STAMP SUIT
Boxes of food are distributed by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank on Aug. 6 in Paramount. Mario Tama/Getty Images
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Two local nonprofits are suing L.A. County, alleging its welfare department routinely fails to process food assistance applications on time for L.A.’s poorest residents.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Hunger Action Los Angeles along with an applicant who faced long delays, claims that throughout the pandemic, the county’s failure to comply with state law has put thousands of households in danger of going hungry each month.

“The question is, how many days is it okay for someone in our community to go hungry?” said Lena Silver, lead attorney on the suit and associate director of litigation and policy advocacy at Neighborhood Legal Services of L.A. County.

L.A. County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The Suit Claims 'Expedited Service' Is Too Slow In LA

The lawsuit centers on how the county’s Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) has administered the CalFresh food assistance program, formerly known as food stamps.

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LA County Is Being Sued For Delaying Food Aid To Poor Families

Advocates say that according to public data, L.A. County has had one of the worst track records in the state when it comes to processing CalFresh applications on time for very poor residents during the pandemic.

In most cases, counties are required to process CalFresh applications within 30 days.

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But to prevent the neediest applicants from going hungry, California law requires a much faster timeline of just three days for certain households.

To qualify for this “expedited service,” applicants must have less than $150 per month in income and less than $100 in cash — or have housing costs that exceed their financial resources.

COVID-19 Brought A Swell In Applications 

Early in the pandemic, L.A. County saw a surge in applicants who qualified for expedited service. Workers suddenly lost jobs. Families had little savings. And figuring out how to put food on the table became an urgent problem.

At the same time, the county needed to protect its own workers from COVID-19. To prevent infections among staff, DPSS shut down its in-person CalFresh offices and redirected applicants to its website and call center.

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L.A. County’s expedited service rate plummeted. In April 2020, benefits were issued on time for just 37% of expedited service applicants.

As the pandemic continued, the county’s processing rate slowly improved. But in recent months, on-time approvals have declined again. In Aug. 2021, the county processed just 47% of expedited applications within three days.

Silver argued these failures are inexcusable more than a year and a half into the pandemic.

“Other counties have figured it out and have much higher levels of compliance,” she said. “There are still thousands of people every month who are eligible for expedited processing, who are at extreme risk of hunger and homelessness, who are not getting benefits in time.”

One Family Waited 45 Days To Get On CalFresh

According to the lawsuit, Peter Jeovanny Torres-Gutierrez — one of the plaintiffs in the case — waited 45 days before L.A. County approved his family’s CalFresh application.

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Torres-Gutierrez, who is still in high school, applied after his father had a stroke and had to stop working as a day laborer. Without any income, the family qualified for expedited service.

But instead of receiving approval within three days, the family allegedly waited 17 days to receive a first call from DPSS.

The lawsuit alleges the family’s application was further dragged out when the county failed to call during a scheduled phone appointment. Torres-Gutierrez received approval only after legal aid attorneys intervened on his family’s behalf.

Silver said applicants frequently skip meals and go hungry during these long waiting periods, which can be traumatic — especially for children.

“Children can experience and feel the emotional stress of food insecurity,” she said. “It's an adverse childhood experience that can cause long-term physical and mental effects.”

Extra Hurdles For The Unhoused

According to the lawsuit, more than 54,000 L.A. County households did not receive benefits on time over the last year. Included in that figure are many Angelenos living on the streets, in cars and in homeless shelters.

Closing CalFresh offices cut off benefits to many unhoused Angelenos, said Todd Cunningham, a food and wellness organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network.

Moving applications online and conducting communication via phone and mail “definitely impeded them,” Cunningham said. “They don't have a place to charge their phone. They don't have a place to get their mail. So that facility represents an important place in the community.”

CalFresh offices have since reopened in L.A. County, but advocates say poor families are still struggling to get through to DPSS.

The pandemic has tested the limits of California’s social safety net in more ways than one. Millions of jobless Californians faced disruptions or denials when seeking unemployment benefits. And rent relief programs across the state have proven slow in getting money out to households at risk of eviction.

The lawsuit seeks to bring L.A. County into compliance with state law. Similar approaches have been tried in other parts of the state. For example, Alameda County was sued over CalFresh delays in 2015. As of this September, it’s now processing 98% of expedited service applications on time.

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David Wagner focuses on Southern Californians getting left behind in an economy beset by soaring unemployment, pandemic-related business closures and high housing costs.