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It’s 7:00 on a muggy Tuesday morning on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia. The street scene is quiet, as a few shopkeepers prepare for the day’s business, and a trickle of workers make their way toward the local Metro stop and Anacostia’s lone office complex. But outside the Anacostia Services Center a line is starting to form. As the morning wears on, it grows steadily; by 9:00 a.m., it has wrapped around the corner of the brick building.
The 50-plus people, mostly women and children, simply stand in silence and stare across the street at the so-called “world’s largest chair,’’ Anacostia’s 19-foot-high landmark. They are used to waiting, because they know the routine. Since the District stopped paying independent food-stamp distributors in May, the overcrowded Anacostia center is one of only five locations in the city where residents can obtain their monthly allotment of food stamps. More than 93,000 District residents are enrolled in the federal program—which makes for a lot of people converging on five facilities. Oftentimes the recipients crowd into offices staffed by a single clerk.
Until recently, the woman at the front of the line got her food stamps at a check-cashing joint a few blocks away on Good Hope Road SE. It was one of many businesses—credit unions, banks, stores—where she could obtain her food stamps. But since May, these places stopped honoring the coupons she receives in the mail every month, so now she joins the throngs that have become commonplace outside the Anacostia center.
As a result of the change, an errand that once took a few minutes now consumes an entire morning or afternoon. The 33-year-old woman works part-time at a home for the mentally ill and insists she can’t afford to be standing in line. But she has no choice; she needs her stamps. To fret and worry would just make the 90-degree heat seem that much hotter. So she waits, immobile and uncomplaining, like most of the crowd.
Down the line, a man wearing a soiled “Arch Deluxe” T-shirt isn’t so patient. He keeps storming to the front to find out what’s taking so damn long, even though he has already decided on the answer: City workers don’t give a damn about him. “They think you’re the bottom of the barrel, and they don’t have to rush to assist you,’’ he says, waving a cigarette. “Last month when I was here they took a lunch break for an hour-and-a-half. They just closed down ’cause they said there was only one person issuing the food stamps.’’
The man glares through the entrance, spotting two uniformed security guards inside. His persistent inquiry earns him rejection again, and he heads back to the end of the line, muttering, “There’s nothing we can do.’’
An employee of the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS), which manages food-stamp distribution, finally emerges from the office and hands out numbers to the first 20 people, who then file slowly into the building. But more people have been arriving, so the line stays just as long as before.
The drill is repeated almost every day over the first two weeks of the month, when District food-stamp enrollees rush to pick up their food stamps. And the madness is not confined to the Anacostia center: Similar scenes unfold at the city’s other emergency food-stamp centers on Kennedy Street NW, Florida Avenue NE, East Capitol Street, and H Street NE.
The lines have generally been longest at the Anacostia center, with waits lasting more than two hours. The only food-stamp facility east of the Anacostia River, it has been swamped by food-stamp recipients from Wards 6, 7, and 8—a swath that includes many of the District’s neediest residents.
“It’s outrageous that they have to go through this,’’ says Sandy Allen of the Anacostia Coordinating Committee and a candidate for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. Council. “It’s not only an inconvenience, it’s just no consideration for these people. We don’t have to make people feel inhuman because they have to get a service from the city.’’
Like most other contemporary problems in the city, the long food-stamp lines are the work of a familiar culprit: the District’s financial crisis. In May, the District stopped paying its independent food-stamp distributors, who promptly closed their doors to enrollees. That left the five service centers as the only distribution points.
“My understanding was that they were going to have this addressed by the time July’s food stamps were to come out, and obviously they haven’t,’’ says Chris Murray, an aide for Councilmember Linda Cropp (at-large). “I’m trying to get some feedback myself on why it didn’t occur.’’
Perhaps most frustrating of all, the District wouldn’t be mired in food-stamp backups if the city followed Maryland and other states in using electronic cards instead of food stamps. Known as the electronic benefits transfer program (EBT), the system electronically deposits food-stamp benefits each month into recipients’ accounts, where they are available for withdrawal. The recipient can use EBT at the grocery store just as others use a credit card. The amount of each transaction is deducted from the cardholder’s account.
Not only a time-saver, EBT has proved a boon for food-stamp recipients in other areas, like self-esteem. “It has been readily accepted by clients, because they feel like they’re being treated like other customers,’’ says Zy Weinberg of the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a D.C.-based national advocacy group. “With EBT, there’s not nearly as much stigma. Food-stamp recipients have always been publicly branded more than any other [welfare recipients]. When you’re at the store, everybody in the world can see that you’re on food stamps….There are 27 million in the country who’ve been willing to endure that humiliation.’’
Weinberg hopes that by 2000, every state will be using EBT, and he predicts that the District will have EBT in place “late next year at the earliest.’’ Murray says there is a contract pending for EBT implementation in the mayor’s “transformation” budget for fiscal year 1997, but there’s no telling when that will finally be carried out.
Meanwhile, city officials have no immediate plans to open more emergency food-stamp facilities, so recipients will have to continue sweating it out this summer at the five locations. Naturally, activists like Allen are outraged: “It’s horrible and it will continue,’’ says Allen. “It’s not likely that any additional food-stamp centers will open before Oct. 1, when new contracts are issued.’’
But John Bayne, who oversees DHS’s food-stamp program, says help could come sooner. “The city is in the process of rebidding for the vendors’ contracts,’’ he says, adding that the independent food-stamp outlets could be opened as early as Sept. 1.
In the afternoon, the line outside Anacostia Services Center is a bit less sluggish than in the morning: A half-hour wait is all it takes to get in.
Shananae Davis, 20, of Southwest, rode 45 minutes on the bus with her 2-year-old daughter to claim her $125 in food stamps. “Me and my baby have to eat,’’ she says.
Nearby, LaVerne Pickett, who stands in line with two of her five children, says her monthly allotment of $288 in stamps is barely enough to get by. At the end of the month, when the stamps run out, she depends on a local church for free bags of food. The 38-year-old Pickett is frustrated to come here and wait, not only here on the sweltering sidewalk but in the holding room inside. “When you go in, you’ve still got to sit down and wait more ’til they call your number,’’ she says.
A woman in search of food stamps approaches. She’s apparently a newcomer to the District’s food-stamp fiasco.
“Are they closed or something?” she asks, surveying the long line with a look of disbelief.
“No, we’ve got to stand in line ’til they give us a number,’’ says Pickett.
“A number?’’ says the woman, incredulous.
“Yeah,’’ says Pickett, repeating herself. “We’ve got to stand in line ’til they give us a number,” as if lecturing one of her daughters.
The woman sighs and heads to the back of the line.—Eddie Dean