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Program Streamlined To Get Food Stamps To Needy Faster

Azul Canela, a San Diego County enrollment counselor, helps Karen Miller and ...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Azul Canela, a San Diego County enrollment counselor, helps Karen Miller and Benito Castillo apply for CalFresh benefits at the Third Avenue Charitable Organization, April 15, 2016.

It can take San Diego County applicants three days to get food stamps under the CalFresh program. The goal now is to sign up in the morning and have an EBT card loaded with the CalFresh dollars by dinner time.

Karen Miller and Benito Castillo are sitting across from a county enrollment counselor in a cozy library at the Third Avenue Charitable Organization in downtown San Diego.

"You should be able to use your card by this afternoon," said counselor Azul Canela.

"Oh, my gosh!" replied Miller.

The couple is applying for CalFresh, or food stamps. The process typically takes three days, but they'll be able to swipe an EBT card loaded with CalFresh dollars by dinner time.

"Applying for it down at the office there on 10th Avenue, it's just a big mess. Everybody is just all mad and angry. It seems like they just treat you like a number," said Castillo, an Army veteran who became homeless eight years ago after breaking his back and struggling to pay medical bills. "But here, the services was top notch. Everybody was so nice."

Castillo has been on CalFresh before but let his account lapse because he doesn't have a permanent address and missed the renewal notice.

The quarterly renewal will still be a challenge. But the San Diego Hunger Coalition and Feeding America San Diego, the groups behind the effort at the Third Avenue Charitable Organization, believe streamlining the process to one day and bringing it into the community will help the county enroll hard-to-reach San Diegans — people who lack mailboxes to receive their EBT cards and transportation to get to county offices.

"It's hard with me being in the wheelchair, for him to have to push me all the way downtown and back up," Miller said. "So this was wonderful."

The county has come under scrutiny in the past for failing to enroll many of its eligible residents into CalFresh and other social safety net programs. While it says it has tripled CalFresh enrollment since 2009, the homeless are still falling through the cracks, said Amanda Schultz with the Hunger Coalition.

She's working to replicate the experience in other areas, such as Pacific Beach, and is joining with other anti-hunger advocates to ask the state to approve mobile card printers. The technology would let county staff issue EBT cards on site, rather than asking clients to walk several blocks to pick them up at a county office.

Still, James Lovell, the director of the Third Avenue Chartitable Organization, said the program has been a win-win.

"(Enrollment counselors) don't seem to be excited about thick Plexiglas windows and a microphone that doesn't work either," Lovell said. "So everybody on all sides has felt like, 'We're people.'"

Lovell's program enrolled about 150 San Diegans last year and is set to double that this year.

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