After pulling a muscle, Jarvis Johnson couldn’t work anymore. He lost his trucking job and went on federal assistance. After paying $326 to his brother and sister-in-law to rent a room in their home, he had $10 left over each month to pay for everything else. So he filed for CalFresh with Alameda County’s Social Services Agency and waited.
CalFresh is California’s rebranded name for food stamps, vouchers distributed to low-income Americans by the federal government, which can be exchanged for food in many stores. Each county is required to evaluate CalFresh applications for eligibility within 30 days of their submission. If an applicant has less than $100 cash to their name or has little to no income—like Johnson did at the time of his application—then the county is required to take emergency measures. The applicant may qualify for expedited food stamps, which requires the county to issue benefits within three calendar days.
But it took Johnson over eight days for him to receive his CalFresh benefits, according to a lawsuit filed against the county’s social services agency last month. His first application was denied, he said in an interview. So Johnson went back to the agency’s San Pablo Avenue office in Oakland with an advocate from the Homeless Action Center, a legal advocacy group, and filed again. Days passed, but the county didn’t get in touch with him. The lawsuit claims that, by then, Johnson was “in desperate need of food.”
“They’re messing with people’s lives,” Johnson said quietly, in an interview over coffee last month. “It seems like they don’t know the urgency. Or they just don’t care.”
Johnson is now one of three plaintiffs in Lilley, et al. v. County of Alameda, et al., a class action lawsuit that was filed in late September against the agency and its director, Lori Cox. The suit alleges that the agency routinely maintains a backlog of pending CalFresh applications. By failing to process these applications within the timeframe mandated by California law, the suit argues, the county’s social services agency prevents applicants like Johnson from easily accessing food. “As a result,” states the plaintiffs’ complaint,
“Alameda County residents are facing undernutrition and hunger, homelessness, and serious health risks.”