Health Rights Clinic Challenges State over Post-Irma Food Voucher Debacle

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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 post-hurricane relief in the form of 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

Saturday morning, 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.

They visited a second site before noon, checking with the state agency, the Department of Children and Families, that the center was open. When they arrived, the location, too, had already closed for the day.

Vorcek dropped off his client, securing a statement from the man authorizing the law student to act on his behalf to ensure the much-needed benefit.

Vorcek even stopped at a third center on his way home: the same situation, closed for the day.

The law student was determined to help his client and arrived at a distribution center at Tropical Park just after 5 a.m. Sunday morning, only to be faced with hundreds of people who had camped out overnight and a line numbering over 1,000. It was the last day of the five-day food stamp distribution.

Police were only allowing a handful of people at a time to enter the tents. He realized, even if he waited all day, it was unlikely he would secure the DSNAP food stamp card for his client.

“It’s hard to have to tell him I couldn’t get him the help he desperately needs,” he told the Miami Herald. “We’re talking about someone who is afraid they won’t be able to pay rent.”

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.

Tens of thousands had lined up for the five-day distribution at four sites in Miami-Dade for the post-hurricane food stamps. Many left empty-handed after waiting for hours in temperatures that soared into the 90s as centers closed without notice.

"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."

In the letter signed by the clinic and ten advocacy groups including the Community Justice Project, the Miami Workers Center, Advocacy Partners Team, 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.

"We observed poor organization, lack of notice to applicants, insufficient accommodations for the disabled and elderly and arbitrary site closures, some early in the morning when sites were advertised to be open until 7 p.m.," Newman wrote.

“In a county of this size, I don’t know how they thought they could do this in five days,” Newman told the Miami Herald. “We are talking about a huge population of people who are in desperate need of basic necessities.”

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