I can’t keep track of the number of days I’ve gone without lunch. Oftentimes, I eat breakfast at 8 a.m. and then wait 12 hours and eat dinner at 8 p.m., all so I don’t go to bed hungry. Being a full-time student and part-time preschool teacher, it was hard to be my best for myself and my young students.
As someone who experienced homelessness at age 19, I know how to make ends meet with meager funds. I know how to stretch my meals and what to purchase that won’t perish quickly. But no one should ever have to face the difficult circumstances and impossible choices I had to make.
As one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), brought by Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund, I am sharing my story because food should not be treated as “optional.” Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits are not a “nice to have,” they are a “need to have” for 40 million Americans, many of whom are children, seniors and people with disabilities. In a major victory, we secured October benefits for this year and years to come, but each month after is another fight.
Congress averted a shutdown on Sept. 30 by passing a continuing resolution. If Congress can’t get their act together, millions will go hungry as the new year starts, thanks to their political games.
I make $1,300 a month as a part time preschool teacher. I am studying full-time to continue my impactful work with preschoolers and work toward more opportunities and better financial stability that are opened up to me with a degree. My monthly expenses for my basic needs such as rent, utilities, car insurance and gas needed to go to work, and out-of-pocket medical expenses, are almost identical to my monthly take-home income. I try to save any extra income from the months where I can work more hours to use in the months when my basic expenses go over my take-home pay. CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP, provides me with $88 in food benefits a month, down from $250 during the pandemic.
With more than 170,000 people experiencing homelessness in California, most of whom are Black and Brown, many government actors are seeking clarification on their ability to sweep unhoused people out of public view. More pointedly, these government actors, after several losses in lower courts, are asking for a blessing from the highest court to remove unhoused people from the street without any guarantees of building or investing in either enough shelter or enough housing for those who need it.
The epidemic of houselessness is ever present – touching every area of our state, and now every area of our legislative and legal systems. The historic reach of the problem is now forcing our big blue state to stretch. How we choose to do so is the question. At present, our cities and counties are reaching past the courts, perceiving them not as arbiters of facts or interpreters of the legal boundaries of enforcement, but rather as obstacles. Treating the lower courts as a scapegoat in their lackluster efforts to address this crisis, several counties and cities have asked for Supreme Court intervention. The goal is to overturn a series of decisions that protect the civil rights of the unhoused in Johnson v. Grants Pass.
In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances against unhoused people without shelter beds available for them. The Boise decision rests on the undisputed fact that human beings need sleep in order to sustain life, and a City’s failure to provide a sheltered place to rest or sleep, paired with the active criminalization of sleeping outdoors, is inhumane under the 8th Amendment.
Johnson v. Grants Pass is the Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling that modestly expands Boise to include administrative enforcement of anti-camping ordinances and prohibitions on using blankets and pillows to sleep. And the Coalition on Homelessness and several unhoused individuals sued the City of San Francisco over their violation of Boise and other policies on the books for destroying encampments without offering shelter to residents.
Three years out from the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, it easy to forget what it was like before vaccines when we worried about food shortages, long lines at the grocery store, washing the stuff you brought home from the store, or even if it was safe to leave our homes. In 2020, I worked at an online retailer and I was returning to that job but not until May. I needed a gig in the interim. Through my volunteer advocacy with the Food Bank, I got a contract job helping to organize an event called Hunger Action Day. I had just started when Covid hit and everything went into lockdown and shelter in place.
The event was canceled and without income, I applied for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. I lived on my savings till those came through.
Congress passed relief measures to support people like me who were out of work due to the pandemic, increasing unemployment for example. Congress also authorized increased food benefits called Emergency Allotments for people on SNAP to help with the financial uncertainty and higher food prices. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture undermined this relief by saying that Emergency Allotments were only available to round people’s food benefits up to the maximum amount for their household size. That meant that people with little or no income, like me, who were already receiving the maximum would not get any additional help.
When I learned what the USDA did, I was angry and frustrated for a moment. Angry that it was unfair and frustrated knowing it’s just so typical of those who’ve made it their mission to attack safety net programs, especially SNAP. There’s so much dis-information about SNAP out there. Maybe the worst of myth is that SNAP covers a person’s food budget for the month for them or their family. It surely does not. People were receiving the maximum amount of SNAP because they needed it and qualified for it. And they needed the additional Emergency Allotments because of the pandemic—to deal with food shortages, higher prices, long lines, and living in lockdown—regardless of the amount of regular SNAP they were receiving. In those days, just being able to access food had a cost to it. But despite overwhelming bipartisan support for Emergency Allotments, the USDA and the Trump Administration were thwarting the intent of the COVID relief passed by Congress. They were playing politics with people’s hunger.
That is why I decided to take a stand and together with my co-plaintiff Robin Hall sue the USDA to make Emergency Allotments available for everyone. I first had to rely on CalFresh as a result of the Great Recession in 2008 and spending 2009 homeless. In my post-homeless life, for a number of years I was a volunteer at the Food Bank. I worked with a group of volunteers from the community all with some experience with food insecurity, who would advocate mostly on the policy side on hunger and poverty issues. That work was very gratifying and there were many successes. Things stayed shut down for months, when they came back, they came back slowly and different from what they were. I was thinking about how I could continue somehow as an anti-hunger advocate when the opportunity to participate in our lawsuit with the Western Center on Law & Poverty and The Impact Fund.
Hospitals run by Los Angeles County could make free care available to more of their financially strapped patients under a new proposal aimed at expanding relief from medical bills.
County health officials said the proposed changes, which also include deeper discounts for other eligible patients, could ultimately benefit thousands of people in the county, yet are unlikely to have a significant effect on hospital finances.
The move comes amid ongoing concern across California about residents putting off or forgoing medical care due to the expense, despite state efforts to expand access to charity care and make sure patients know about financial assistance.
Under the proposed rules, free care would be available to eligible L.A. County residents with incomes under 200% of the federal poverty level, or $60,000 for a family of four under current guidelines. The existing cutoff is 138% of the poverty level, which amounts to $41,400 for a family of four.
“Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said CalWORKs was originally based in the belief that if the government didn’t force people to work, they wouldn’t know “what was good for them.” The program has been reformed over the years, Herald said, but tens of thousands of families are still sanctioned from the system due to the work requirement.”
“It’s all very frustrating, since with the fifth largest economy in the world, these things are fixable. The money is there,” said Courtney McKinney, spokesperson for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is a question of priorities — whether or not millions of people being plunged into poverty is seen as enough of a destabilizer to encourage the wealthy, business and political class in California to put money into addressing poverty and the trappings of poor environment in smart, sensible ways. Easier said than done.”
“President Trump is finding every opportunity to talk about food stamps,” says Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law on Poverty. “Unfortunately, it’s in the context of wanting to cut the benefit.”
With more than 40 million people in the country struggling with hunger, anti-hunger advocates in the United States have their work cut out for them. In 2017, nearly 12 percent of all US households were food insecure—meaning they didn’t have access to enough food for all household members to lead active, healthy lives. Food insecurity is stratified across racial lines, affecting less than 9 percent of white households in America, but nearly 22 percent of black households and 18 percent of Latinx households.
…Jessica Bartholow, a poverty-and-hunger advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, agrees that national hunger organizations need to bring a robust racial analysis to their work, particularly with regard to how racist and oppressive systems are impacting efforts to end hunger among people of color. “If you’re not asking how race impacts outcomes in 2019, then you missed something really important about this country,” she said. “We can have the best school-meal program in the world, but if black girls are getting pushed out of school due to racism, they’re not going to get that meal anyway.”