Health Rights Clinic Fights for Disabled Floridians after Hurricane Relief Debacle

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In October, Thomas Voracek, a second-year law student, was among the Health Rights Clinic students reaching out to their clients to make sure they knew about the Florida's first post-hurricane relief in the form of a five-day food stamp distribution. To save time, he pre-registered online one of his clients, a 66-year-old Haitian man.

Professor JoNel Newman and 2L Thomas Voracek

Inadequacies at Relief at Hurricane Distribution Sites

Saturday morning, October 14, Voracek picked up his client, and they arrived at the nearest distribution site around 10 a.m. Police told them the center was already closed for the day, even though online information indicated the centers were open until 6 p.m. By the end of the weekend, Voracek visited four sites and his client was no closer to receiving the much-needed benefit.

Garnering Support from Like-Minded Groups

Clinic Director JoNel Newman was so enraged by Voracek's experience, and others like it, that she reached out to other advocacy groups to demand that DCF reopen the distribution centers to allow impoverished Floridians access to the benefit.

"The rollout of DSNAP in Miami-Dade County was wholly inadequate on every level," Newman wrote in a letter to DCF. "DCF failed to adequately staff and provide sufficient application sites to accommodate the reasonably anticipated number of applicants." 

Conditions Untenable for Disabled

Lines with tens of thousands of needy residents waited in lines for long hours in the hot sun and rain. “I wasn’t confident to send my client out there, and honestly he didn’t want to go out there. He thought it was a lost cause,” said Voracek. 

In a letter, signed by the clinic and ten advocacy groups including Florida Legal Services, the Community Justice Project, the Miami Workers Center, New Florida Majority, Catalyst Miami, and Florida Voices for Health, Newman demanded that the DCF immediately announce and implement a plan to reopen and add more registration sites for a more extended period.

2nd Try for Improved Distribution at Hark Rock Stadium

A second three-day sign up at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami still did not address access for the disabled and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, so lawyers from Health Rights Clinic, Florida Legal Services and Community Justice Project filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who funds the disaster relief, and the Florida Department of Children and Families, who is charged with distributing the aid. 

“We want people to be treated humanely and with dignity,” Newman said. “I called and the only accommodation they are offering for people with disabilities is for them to send a representative. Not everyone can send someone.

Shortfalls for Disabled Persisted 

“We had people out there who walked half a mile or more from the parking lot just to get into the line,” said Newman. “That's not possible for our clients.” 

Federal Judge Ursula Ungaro held an emergency hearing on the case November 7 and 20.  As a result, the USDA has agreed to allow the DCF to conduct telephone interviews of all pre-registered D-SNAP applicants who are over 60 or have a disability. 

“This is an enormous step forward in making D-SNAP accessible to thousands of disabled Floridians in need,” Newman said. “Our case is the first time ever that the USDA has agreed to permit disabled individuals to complete the process by telephone.”

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