The state is quietly closing offices that provide help to people applying for food stamps and Medicaid in several Florida counties.
The closures by the Department of Children and Families come as more people are signing up for public assistance online, causing fewer applicants to rely on the regional offices for assistance, a spokeswoman said.
But nonprofits that the state is asking to help with applicants who need in-person assistance say their resources are being spread thin by the new demands.
Last year, DCF closed offices in St. Petersburg, Pasco County, North Port, Naples and Labelle. A sixth office in Bradenton is scheduled to close next year.
Employees at the offices helped people sign up for the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the Temporary Cash Assistance Program and Medicaid.
“Each of the closed locations went through a coordinated transition to community partners to ensure that our clients had continued service,” DCF spokeswoman Natalie Harrell said in an email. “This shift in delivery of services is fully consistent with the department’s philosophy of working with our local community partners to efficiently deliver vital social services to Florida’s families.”
But at least one community partner – the nonprofit charity Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg – received little notice about the change and almost no additional support, said the center’s director Jane Walker. Since the closure of a DCF office in downtown St. Petersburg, Walker said Daystar has been helping between three and 10 people sign up for public assistance every day.
“We're taking time out of the day to do this, and we do it because it's necessary because we don't want them to go without,” Walker said. “But we've got all these other people that are walking through the door that need the help that Daystar provides in general.”
The closure of the St. Petersburg office left applicants with one DCF location in Pinellas County. The office, on Ulmerton Road in north Pinellas, is not convenient for people who live in the southern part of the county, Walker said.
Along with Daystar, the United Way Campbell Park in St. Petersburg is among 13 nonprofit agencies that the state has listed as community partners.
DCF gave Daystar a scanner that it could use to provide the state with authentication documents. But beyond that, it receives no special treatment in the partnership, Walker said.
So when someone comes in with a difficult case, an employee from Daystar has to call the same phone number as everyone else in the state who is looking for assistance. The process can take several hours or days for a charity for a charity that is run by mostly volunteers.
It would be more effective if the state would provide Daystar a direct contact, Walker said.
“We don’t have the same access (as the state) to the information to look up when somebody’s case is confusing,” Walker said. “We have to call and wait for someone to call us back.”
Medicaid and food stamp applications require verification of a person's income and expenses, including rent and childcare. Walker says some applicants can't read or don't know how to use a computer.
Florida has more than 3.8 million Medicaid recipients and about 14 percent of the state’s 21 million residents qualify for food stamps.
DCF has no plans to close any other offices in the state, spokeswoman Natalie Harrell said. But the agency did not say why it only chose to close offices in six counties.
People who do not have a computer and cannot make it to one of DCF’s remaining offices or a community partner, can use a library computer to enroll or call the agency directly, Harrell said.
DCF’s other community partners are the City of North Port, Division of Social Services; North Port Goodwill; Hope Resource Center, New Port Richey; Pasco County Human Services, Port Richey; Pasco County Human Services, Dade City; The Volunteer Way, Port Richey; Ross Dynasty, LaBelle; Florida Community Health, Clewiston and Moore Haven; Goodwill Job Link, Port Charlotte; Catholic Charities, East Naples; and Bonita Springs Assistance Office, Bonita Springs.