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In Hennepin County, has a new application process made it harder to access social safety-net programs?

Since the pandemic, demand for food, cash and health programs has surged. But applicants have faced long waits on phone hotlines — and when they show up for help at a county office, workers say they often must turn them away.

Since the pandemic, demand for programs in Hennepin County has surged by nearly 40%. Now, county workers are alarmed at the number of applicants leaving county offices empty-handed — and angry.
Since the pandemic, demand for programs in Hennepin County has surged by nearly 40%. Now, county workers are alarmed at the number of applicants leaving county offices empty-handed — and angry.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes

Joey Caldwell was back again at a Hennepin County office, hoping workers there could help. His application for food stamps and disability benefits was stuck in virtual limbo.

But after three hours, Caldwell stormed out. He was hungry. He was visibly angry. He still didn’t have the answers he needed.

And crucially, despite borrowing a phone charger, Caldwell’s weak smartphone battery was still nearly dead: Several key steps in Hennepin County’s application process require residents to have access to a phone or the internet.

“You know, I’m on disability,” Caldwell said he told the workers. “I don’t know nothing about this technology stuff, so could y’all please get somebody to help me go through it?”

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Caldwell was frustrated with the county workers sitting behind computer screens at the help desk. He thought they were “playing solitaire,” refusing to help.

But many of those workers are frustrated, too.

What’s wrong with Hennepin County’s benefits application, according to some workers

A year-and-a-half ago, county leaders hoped the statewide launch of a new online application would make it easier for vulnerable residents — like Caldwell, who was living in a homeless shelter — to access vital social safety net programs, including food stamps, health benefits and cash assistance.

Since the pandemic, demand for these programs in Hennepin County has surged by nearly 40%. Now, county workers are alarmed at the number of applicants leaving county offices empty-handed — and angry.

Last week, the workers’ union, AFSCME Local 2822, went public with their concerns, blaming applicants’ headaches on county administrators’ refusal to offer enough in-person services.

Under the county’s pre-pandemic service model, workers in Hennepin County’s service hubs said they could sort out many problems with a resident’s application during an office visit. Now, workers refer many applicants to a phone hotline or online application — even on some occasions when applicants show up in-person for help.

“It’s a way of further cutting assistance to poor people. That’s what’s happening,” said the union’s president, Ali Fuhrman. “What is it about [the economic benefits program], where people have the least access to resources, the lowest levels of digital literacy — why is it you’re shortchanging them?”

“That couldn’t be less true,” said Kate Heffernan, senior administrator in the Hennepin County Human Services Department, who oversees the economic lifeline programs. “We’ve had our challenges, so I can understand what they’re saying, but that is absolutely not the focus.”

In an interview, Heffernan acknowledged several shortcomings in the county’s application process: Wait times on the phone hotline spiked in recent months. Miscommunications between executives, middle-managers and staff have made matters worse.

There have been delays in processing applications, Heffernan said. From July 2021 to last August, the rate at which Hennepin County completed food and cash assistance applications dropped from around 90% to 83%.

But Heffernan said Hennepin County is taking steps to address these shortcomings. Administrators are already shifting staff in response to the union’s complaints. On-time completion rates are inching closer to their pre-pandemic levels, Heffernan said.

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Heffernan also argued that, on balance, the new model is far more accessible than the old application process, which forced many applicants to miss work, struggle to find childcare or endure long transit rides to reach an in-person benefits appointment.

“It's kind of apples and oranges when you compare, pre-pandemic to post,” Heffernan said. With an online application process, “it’s real convenient for a lot of our community to be able to — when they know they have a need, they can apply and get that process started.”

Where are the pinch-points in the application process?

To understand where the frontline workers say the system is breaking down, consider the food stamps program, whose formal name is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or “SNAP.” In 2021, more than 100,000 Hennepin County residents were enrolled in SNAP. The average qualifying family in the county received around $400 per month from the state-administered and federally-funded program.

To apply for SNAP benefits, a Hennepin County resident would fill out a form at a state-run website, MNbenefits — and later, the applicant would complete a screening interview over the phone with a Hennepin County worker.

In theory, an applicant could receive their approval and benefits card without ever setting foot in a county office.

In practice, Hennepin County workers said the virtual process creates new barriers for applicants who don’t have reliable phone access, especially unhoused, single adults. Even applicants with phones often have limited minutes — and in three of the last six months, county data show adult applicants have waited on hold for an average of at least 35 minutes on the hotline.

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Hennepin County set up computer labs with phones where applicants can upload forms online or call the hotline to complete their intake interviews — just down the hall from county employees who could theoretically handle the interview themself.

Handling benefits applications is part of Ronisha Buckner’s job with Hennepin County. But she said higher-ups have instructed her colleagues at a downtown Minneapolis service center to send someone who shows up seeking benefits to the computer lab. It ate at Buckner when workers at the reception desk would tell an applicant “there’s no one here to help them.”

“When I first started this job, I loved it because of the amount of people we were able to help,” Buckner said. “Now to have to turn so many people away or possibly lose my job because of simply helping someone … It’s horrible.”

This is where Heffernan believes there’s been a miscommunication between managers and frontline workers, because her intent is not to turn away residents from county offices: “I don’t want to say that anyone’s doing anything wrong, but I think there’s some confusion out there.”

Furhmann, Local 2822’s president, has her doubts: “We’re not denying it’s not good to have other options for people, we’re just saying you can’t eliminate the in-person option — and that’s their goal.”

‘I’m out here homeless. I’m trying to do it the right way.’

In extreme cases, Fuhrman said employees her union represents have reported that some angry applicants have gotten so frustrated at the handling of their cases, they’ve threatened violence against themselves or staff.

The service center where Buckner works is on the fifth floor of Hennepin County’s Human Services Building. On a recent weekday when MinnPost visited the office, one person raised his voice to a level that earned a warning from security guards: “I can’t stay here waiting for a month-and-a-half!” Shortly afterward, he appeared to receive a benefits card. He left upset, but without hurting anyone.

But most of the other dozen help-seekers that day entered and exited without apparent complaint.

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After the elevator doors opened, they approached two reception windows and received ticket numbers. They waited in several rows of mostly-empty chairs in a bright lobby with picture windows offering a panoramic view of the Minneapolis Armory and City Hall. An automated voice summoned them to one of four help windows in the room, or to doors around the corner.

On a different afternoon, Caldwell sat in the adjoining computer room. He hunched over his phone for more than an hour, wrapped in a black coat with the white letters “SECURITY” emblazoned on the back.

Though Caldwell said little to the workers attending the room, he was puzzling over how to get his food and disability benefits transferred from Wisconsin, where he lived for about three months before returning to his home state in early March.

It’s not clear exactly what’s causing the holdup in his case, but Caldwell said he had visited the Hennepin County office the week before. Caldwell figured a worker could maybe call a counterpart in Wisconsin to sort this out.

But during this second visit, when he couldn’t get the answers he wanted online, he rose to leave, making sure to utter a few choice words toward the office workers before boarding the elevator.

“I'm out here starving. I'm out here homeless. I'm trying to do it the right way,” he said in the lobby. “It’s just frustrating. If it weren’t for Mary Jo [Copeland’s Sharing & Caring Hands kitchen] feeding me twice a day, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”

After cooling down, Caldwell resolved to go back upstairs and try again. He walked over to call an elevator to the fifth floor and walked inside.

“They’re gonna give me an answer today,” Caldwell said before the doors shut.

How county administrators say they’re improving the process

Heffernan pushed back on the notion that the old system was better for the most vulnerable applicants.

“Think about a family with kids who feels like they have to grab their kids, get on the bus, take time off work, get to our office, sit in the lobby,” Heffernan said.

Yes, pre-pandemic, that applicant could walk out with a SNAP benefits card — but only if all of their documents were exactly in order. If they weren’t, or if the applicant made a mistake on a form, they’d have to make a repeat visit. The online system prevents those repeat trips, Heffernan said.

Under the current model, Heffernan said, “that mom at 2 o’clock in the morning at her kitchen table … can start the process: go online, apply, upload some documents and take care of it while your kids are still in bed.”

That said, Heffernan acknowledged that the system might be working better for this hypothetical parent, who “is probably a lot more savvy, and it’s probably easier for her to go online.”

“We really just kind of humbly recognize,” she added, “that some of the single adults that we're working with that are maybe homeless … might not have that skill set or the smartphone.”

So Heffernan said the county has been trying to shore up its process with these more vulnerable single adults in mind — after all, they’ve experienced longer wait times.

In recent weeks, the county has scheduled more staff — human services representatives, like Buckner — to work the phones. The county is also training new groups of staff to help with hotline calls, Heffernan said.

Heffernan also said the county is increasing the number of staff working in the office, and giving them more leeway to simply conduct in-person benefits interviews.

“We're trying to do that thoughtfully,” she added, “because we also don't want people to come and have to sit in our lobby for a really long time.”

The union would contend staffing might still be a challenge: Fuhrman said the county employs roughly 10% fewer human services representatives than it did before the pandemic. (Heffernan said the union was citing figures that have been made obsolete after a recent restructuring.)

At a Hennepin County Board of Commissioners meeting last week, a group of human services workers rose during public comment to plead for help. Some of the workers had faced “gaslighting” and retaliation from managers for speaking up, Fuhrman said.

“This is us,” Fuhrman told the county’s elected leaders, “after four months of talking to management, begging for a response and for a solution.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of AFSCME Local 2822 president Ali Fuhrman.