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As long lines persist, state winds down food assistance program for Harvey victims

Long lines — and criticism about how the program was handled — plagued the sign-up period for Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Houston.

People line up for food at an open grocery store in Houston Tuesday Aug 29, 2017.

Editor's note: This story was updated Oct. 21 to indicate when the Center for Public Policy Priorities statement was issued

Friday was the last day for Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston to apply for disaster food stamps, and the lines that have grown throughout the week persisted as people tried to sign up for aid to buy groceries.

Two Houston locations were still providing assistance after a three-day extension was granted. On Wednesday, as thousands waited in line at Houston’s Deussen Park in the heat, firefighters treated several people who overheated, and an elderly man died from cardiac arrest as he approached the line.

A representative from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission told KHOU on Wednesday that they expected the surge of applicants, but did not expect the confusion that came with it.

“Our staff worked tirelessly and with a lot of heart [to] make sure we helped as many people as possible,” agency spokeswoman Carrie Williams said in an email Friday.

An eligible four-person household can receive a lump sum of $649 on their Lone Star Card within three days of applying.

The federal program, which is administered by the state, is typically offered for seven days after a disaster. After Harvey, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service authorized Texas to provide benefits for more than 1.5 million people and extended the application period for 18 days — the longest period the agency has ever approved.

Despite the extension, demand for the program seemed to overwhelm the available sign-up locations earlier in the week. After 7 p.m. today, the state is encouraging people who missed their chance to apply for D-SNAP to apply for regular food stamps.

Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said in a written statement Thursday that state and county officials should have sped up the process by opening more locations and increasing the number of workers.

“There are more efficient and compassionate ways to deliver food assistance to our fellow Texans in need,” Beeson said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett had the power to open up more application sites, but declined to do so, saying he was concerned about fraud.

“It’s become just a government giveaway as opposed to targeting people who really need help,” Emmett told reporters on Thursday.

The application process requires paperwork, a sworn affidavit and a declaration of losses from the hurricane. The application is then compared to FEMA records. Lying on the application can result in federal prosecution, and a local television station reported that fraud investigators were monitoring various application sites.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said she doesn’t think the state has done enough. In a video posted on her Facebook page Thursday, the Houston Democrat said it’s important to provide disaster relief for the long term, rather than just focusing on immediate relief.

“Right now Harris County is still in the Hurricane Harvey disaster,” Jackson Lee said in the video. “Food needs are still ongoing.”

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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