The Waipahu Food Assistance Office Is Empty — and It's Not for Lack of Need, Nor Is It A Bad Thing

Noelle Chun/Civil Beat

It's quiet at the Waipahu Department of Human Services unit.

After the brouhaha in the Legislature this year over whether to shut down such offices and consolidate operations, you would have thought the places would be hopping.

Civil Beat went down to the Waipahu Civic Center last week to see how things were going at the Department of Human Service's West Oahu Unit. This is the place where Hawaii residents apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Commonly known as food stamps or EBT in other states, the program offers some 141,293 struggling residents financial help for one of life's basic necessities: nutrition.

During a time when the state continues to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, what did we find? A quiet office — which the department says is a result of a new push for interviews by telephone, instead of in person, part of its efforts to simplify the application process.

A few people idled on one of 10 plastic chairs in the room, filling out applications or reading magazines. Fans whirred, while employees typed quietly on their computers. Most had come to fill out applications for food stamps. One person came in for her interview and then left.

By contrast, the busy unemployment office can be heard from inside the SNAP office, which had propped open its glass doors due to a hiccupy air conditioner. Across the way, at the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, a crowd of people — big, heavy set bald guys — filled the hallway. Inside there were two full rows of people, some with bloodshot eyes, waiting for unemployment benefits. Still others, waited, standing on the side, shifting from foot to foot or leaning against walls and doors. Children were crying on their parents' laps, their colicky, hoarse fervor echoing urgently throughout the three-story, open-air building.

But just across the open courtyard, all is calm at the SNAP office.

It wasn't always this way for the Department of Human Services.

Early this year, the department had responded to crashing state revenues and a backlog of requests for assistance with a plan known as Eligibility Processing Operations Division (EPOD). Gov. Linda Linda purported that the strategy would save the state $8 million and speed up processing times by streamlining the welfare application and renewal processes for Medicaid, welfare and nutrition benefits. This would have meant consolidating offices, closing 31 locations and eliminating 228 staff positions. But the Legislature stopped the plan.

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