Post-Sandy food stamp benefits are free, but some elderly Chinatown residents have been charged for them — and they’re not happy.
On an early November day, not long after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, Chinatown resident Suiqing Lin was walking along East Broadway when she spotted a line of people applying for supplemental food stamp benefits. The office where applications were being taken said that residents of Chinatown had three days to apply for a one-month, 50 percent increase in their benefits, to compensate them for food they may have lost as a result of the storm.
To get the increase, those in line paid $30 – or $15 for senior citizens like Lin.
Despite the fee, Lin felt happy – until a few days later, when the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which oversees the food stamp program, posted signs in Chinatown. The signs said that food stamp recipients in the city’s storm-hit neighborhoods would automatically get a 50 percent increase in benefits for October – a change approved by Governor Cuomo.
So what about the forms and the $15 and $30 fees that Lin and others had paid earlier to private companies, supposedly to ensure they got the post-storm benefits? Lin said she – like others in Chinatown who don’t speak English – is confused.
“I am too old to figure out things,” Lin said.
“They are making up excuses to charge people for something that is free,” said Linsing treasurer Eddie Chew, who went on Sino TV, Chinatown’s most popular Chinese-language cable channel, to warn people about the scheme.
Chew showed Global City NYC a receipt given to him by a Mr. Li, who, according to the receipt, paid $40 to 81 D&D Services Center on 81 Elizabeth Street in order to receive increased food stamp benefits.
Chew said that after receiving the complaint, he phoned the 81 D&D Center and spoke with an employee there named Kelly Chan. “Chan promised to give the $40 back to Li immediately, after I said on the phone that Li was going to sue her,” said Chew.
When a Global City NYC reporter subsequently visited the services center’s office, Kelly Chan agreed to answer questions about the fees. At first she said that food stamp recipients all needed a special application and a fee payment to get the post-storm food stamp supplement. Later, Chan acknowledged that no fee was needed for recipients to get “their benefits automatically transferred into their accounts.” But, she said, while the government can accept applications with no fee, a private organization like D&D needs to charge in order to cover labor costs in collecting and submitting the forms.
Asked why people would pay her company a fee, when they could submit the same form for free at a SNAP office, Chan said, “People don’t want to spend a long time waiting in the line, and they desperately want the increase,” In the end, said Chan, “If anyone who still has complaints approaches you, you can tell him to come here. I will give all his money back.”
According to the Linsing Association, other businesses also charged Chinatown residents a fee for food stamp benefit forms after Superstorm Sandy, including Shenghua Welfare and Immigration Services Center, which has branches on 60th Street in Brooklyn and 41stAvenue in Flushing, A woman who identified herself as Ms. Lu answered the center’s phone in Brooklyn and confirmed that the office had offered SNAP and FEMA benefit application forms for a fee. But she refused to give her first name or answer questions about the fees.
Some companies charging fees appear to have targeted elderly people in Chinatown, where power and water were out for days after the storm.
Qing Chen, who daily visits East Red Day Care Center for the elderly on East Broadway, said he paid $15 to register for additional food stamp benefits at a service center on the second floor of 53 East Broadway. A day later, he said, he realized he had been bilked. Yaju Hu, the chief director of the East Red Day Care Center, said Chen was one of several people who told her that they had paid such fees.
Hu said because of language barriers and hearing problems, a lot of seniors in Chinatown turn to storefront service centers for help submitting government applications. Although the fees charged for the food stamp applications were unjustified, said Hu, these Chinatown residents were reluctant to make official complaints. They worry that they will need to use the service centers in the future, said Hu, and “They are afraid of revenge.”