Court finds management problems prevent HSD from fixing food and medical benefits applications

ALBUQUERQUE—A federal court found that lack of leadership and accountability in the New Mexico Human Services Department prevents it from fixing entrenched problems in food and medical benefit administration.

In a ruling issued late yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales set a series of deadlines for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms and required the appointment of knowledgeable subject matter experts in supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), Medicaid, and eligibility for families that include immigrants in the department’s Income Support Division.

“We’re very hopeful that this ruling will lead to much needed changes in the department’s leadership,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “For there to be permanent improvement in administration, the Human Services Department leadership must have expertise and management abilities that give front line workers the tools they need to ensure New Mexicans can get food and medical assistance. HSD is still not processing applications in time, leaving too many children and families unable to access basic necessities.”

In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held the HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families. The court appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department.

Despite court orders and the expertise provided by the Special Master, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance and does not provide timely information about case decisions. Each month the department develops a backlog of unprocessed cases, a large share of phone calls go unanswered, and workers are not accurately trained on the requirements for processing food and medical assistance applications.

In his ruling yesterday, the judge agreed with the Special Master’s January 2018 report finding that the current HSD management team lacks the sufficient “knowledge, skills, and abilities” necessary to ensure families receive information about their cases and get the assistance they need to eat and see the doctor.

The judge also found that the Income Support Division Director demonstrated “woefully” little knowledge of the court ordered changes to improve processing food and Medicaid applications despite the significant impact they had on the division’s mission and work.

The judge was also troubled by the ISD Director’s lack of knowledge of standard memoranda issued by her division, training procedures, and her admitted failure to speak with the Regional Operations Managers on how to address improving timeliness and efficiency.

“We hope the state will make the management changes that will end the need for such extensive oversight through the courts,” said Hager. “New Mexicans who are going through significant hardships shouldn’t have to fight with the state to get the food and medical care they need.”

Center attorneys working on the Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest lawsuit include Sovereign Hager, Gail Evans, and Maria Griego. Civil rights attorney, Daniel Yohalem is lead counsel on the case.

The court’s ruling can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Doc.-836-Memorandum-Opinion-and-Order-2018-04-05-00000003.pdf

Proposed ordinance blocks homeless shelter in Roswell

ROSWELL, NM — A proposed Roswell City Council ordinance blocking the construction or operation of a new or expanded homeless shelter in Roswell violates the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions and the Fair Housing Act, charged the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in a letter sent yesterday to the Roswell Mayor and City Council. The City of Roswell would be unable to meet vital housing needs and reduce homelessness if the proposed ordinance is passed because it imposes excessive zoning restrictions that exclude any new or expanded shelter from operating in the city.

“Everyone benefits when all community members have a safe place to sleep at night, access to running water, and bathrooms,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the Center. “There is a vital need for a bigger shelter in Roswell that can accommodate more individuals and families. Unfortunately, the ordinance would leave the city with no options for locating a much needed transitional housing facility, leaving people to sleep outdoors. Each night without shelter brings new threats of violence, malnutrition, and sickness.”

The proposed ordinance would restrict any new or expanded homeless shelter to two industrial zones in Roswell and impose, among other excessive requirements, that any transitional housing be on a plot of at least two acres and have an eight-foot fence. Zoning maps for the City of Roswell show that there are no plots in the restricted zones that are large enough.

There has been an exponential rise in homelessness in Roswell over the last few years. Instead of addressing the severe lack of housing and shelter in Roswell, the city began enforcing anti-camping ordinances that criminalize homelessness without providing access to shelter.

Not only is there a severe shortage of space in Roswell’s homeless shelters for the large numbers of people who need them, there is no current facility in Roswell that can take families. If, for example, a family made up of a mother and teenage boys is lucky enough to find a shelter, the children must be separated from their mother.

The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in Roswell have mental and physical disabilities. Banning a new or expanded homeless shelter in the city violates the Fair Housing Act because it would discriminate against people with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny access to housing on the basis of disability. The equal protection clauses of the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions also prohibit laws that discriminate against people with disabilities.

The City of Roswell’s continued efforts to criminalize homelessness by issuing citations to people who sleep or otherwise occupy public places also violate the First, Eighth, and 14th Amendments. This is particularly true when the city knowingly fails to provide alternative housing options for people who are homeless.

The letter from the Center explains: “Individuals in this country have significant liberty interests in standing on sidewalks and in other public places, and in traveling, moving, and associating with others and that liberty is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Punishing unhoused residents of Roswell for sleeping and possessing property outdoors violates the Eighth amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because these actions are unavoidable for people who are homeless.”

The Center urges the City Council to table the proposed amendments to the Roswell Zoning Ordinance and instead, work in collaboration with community members to set up a task force of stakeholders to find an appropriate location for permanent supportive housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.

“Transitional housing is proven to increase community health and safety,” said Hager. “Research shows that housing stability improves physical and behavioral health outcomes and reduces the use of crisis services such as emergency departments, hospitals, and jails for individuals experiencing homelessness. Adequate transitional housing would improve the health and safety of both people experiencing homelessness and the surrounding community.”

A copy of the letter the Center sent to the mayor and city council can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Letter_Roswell-City-Attny_2018_04_04.pdf                                                  

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty responds to Trump’s proposed cuts to food assistance

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty condemns President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal that slashes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by $213 billion. The proposal would replace SNAP food dollars for households receiving over $90 a month in benefits with a shelf stable box of foods. With the proposed 30 percent cut to the program over the next ten years, New Mexico would also stand to lose $207.9 million to the state economy.

The following quote can be attributed to New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty Managing Attorney Sovereign Hager:

“In New Mexico and in our country, we have a shared commitment to make sure that no one in our community goes hungry. It is shocking that this administration would propose a shameful budget that would literally take food off the table for our children and families. The cuts would have an outsized impact on our state where one in four New Mexicans participate in SNAP, including 40 percent of our kids. The cuts to these food benefits would not only mean that more New Mexicans won’t have enough to eat, they would also increase poverty and inequality and make it harder to succeed in today’s economy.

“By any measure, the SNAP program has been a huge success. It’s long been our first line of defense against hunger and has other positive economic and health outcomes. Research shows SNAP contributes positively to children’s brain development, and children who participate in SNAP are healthier, do better in school, and have increased earnings over time. SNAP also greatly contributes to our local economy through an exemplary public-private partnership. SNAP dollars are spent in local food retailers across New Mexico contributing hundreds of millions in economic activity.

“What’s more, the proposed replacement of electronic benefit cards with government-issued canned food strips people of the basic dignity of being able to buy their own groceries just like everybody else. Rather than shaming people, the government should be shoring up the SNAP program to make sure that our neighbors and families all have enough to eat. What this administration seems to be doing instead is suggesting that children, the elderly, and disabled people should fund tax cuts for the wealthy. Our members of Congress should reject this indefensible proposal.”

For more information on SNAP in New Mexico, go to: http://nmpovertylaw.org/proposed-budget-will-increase-hunger-and-inequality-in-nm-february-2018/

Groups sue MVD for denying non-REAL ID licenses & ID cards to eligible New Mexicans

SANTA FE, NM – Today, civil rights groups and homeless advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department (TRD) and the Motor Vehicles Division (MVD) on behalf of New Mexicans who were illegally denied Driver’s Authorizations Cards (DACs) and non-REAL ID identification cards, charging that the state has failed to fully and correctly implement its two-tiered driver’s license law.

The requirement of unnecessary documentation for DAC’s and non-federally compliant ID cards has caused chaos at local MVDs and major confusion and frustration for applicants across New Mexico. The lawsuit challenges MVD’s onerous and illegal regulations governing the issuance of non-REAL ID licenses and identification cards, including the illegal practices of requiring proof of identification number and not providing adequate due process to applicants who are denied.

The lead plaintiff, Santa Fe’s former Mayor David Coss, was denied a DAC four times at his local MVD because he lost his social security card, which is not a requirement under the law.  Coss, whose long-held driver’s license has since expired, was also not provided an adequate process to appeal the denial.

“A driver’s license and ID card are not luxuries,” said Coss at Monday’s press conference. “I’m the primary childcare provider to my toddler grandchildren, and I drive them around town. I’m also the guardian of my 86-year-old father who suffered a stroke last year. I need my license to carry out my daily responsibilities. I followed the law and took my paperwork into MVD before my license expired but was turned away every time. I know I’m not the only New Mexican dealing with this nightmare.”

Individual plaintiffs denied licenses and ID cards are joined by organizational plaintiffs, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, and Somos Un Pueblo Unido (Somos) in the lawsuit. David Urias of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, P.A. is the lead counsel on the legal team that includes attorneys from Somos, ACLU-NM, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The plaintiffs include senior citizen, immigrant, and homeless individuals who need a license or ID to go to work or school, obtain housing, medical care or other necessities, but were illegally denied an MVD credential without written notice detailing the reasons for the denial or information about how to appeal it.

“It is quite common for people to lose their ID and other paperwork when they become homeless,” said Hank Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “Getting a new ID is essential for them as they get back on their feet. You cannot rent an apartment or even a motel room without an ID. We are asking MVD to follow the law and make it possible for people to replace lost or stolen IDs quickly.”

In 2016, Republican and Democratic legislators came together and created a two-tiered driver’s license system that gives New Mexicans the choice to opt in or out of the federal REAL ID Act. According to the law, the state must provide a REAL ID-compliant license or ID card to eligible residents who want it and can meet the federal government’s onerous requirements. An alternative non-REAL ID license or ID card for otherwise eligible applicants who do not meet the federal requirements or simply do not want a REAL ID, must also be made available.

“REAL ID was always a bad idea,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM.  “The spirit of the 2016 bipartisan fix is not being honored. The Legislature understood just how difficult getting a REAL ID license would be for many New Mexicans. That is why legislators worked hard to ensure people had an alternative, especially vulnerable New Mexicans like people experiencing homelessness, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, senior citizens and people living in in rural communities.”

“After a protracted six-year battle on driver’s licenses, the New Mexico Legislature voted to create an alternative to the REAL ID Act for all New Mexicans, not just immigrants,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. “For over a year, we worked with allied groups throughout the state to educate the public about its rights and advocate for a better process at MVD. Everyone has done their job except this administration. Our goal with this lawsuit is to help resolve these issues quickly for all New Mexicans.”

“An identification card is a basic necessity to function in everyday life, but the MVD is illegally requiring unnecessary and overly burdensome documentation that most folks simply cannot come up with. The harm caused by the illegal requirements is compounded by the MVD’s failure to provide a way for New Mexicans to challenge an erroneous denial of driver’s license or ID card.” said Sovereign Hager, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The MVD should follow the law rather than wrecking the lives of people who need an ID to drive, support their families, and find housing.”

The defendants in the lawsuit are the TRD, acting Cabinet Secretary John Monforte, MVD, and acting director Alicia Ortiz.

Click here to view a copy of the complaint: http://nmpovertylaw.org/coss-v-monforte-january-2018/

Click here to view plaintif profiles: http://nmpovertylaw.org/plaintiff-stories-coss-v-manforte-lawsuit/

Breaking down barriers to child care assistance

by Maria Griego & Sovereign Hager

One often insurmountable barrier to financial security for many New Mexican families is the high cost of child care, this is especially true for low-wage workers. The astronomical costs prevent thousands of families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, while the number of New Mexicans who qualify for state-provided child care assistance has increased, enrollment in the program has actually declined.

We dug into the problem and found that the Children, Youth and Families Department required families to go through a torturous child care assistance enrollment process. Families automatically eligible for child care assistance because they engage in work and educational activities through our state cash assistance program (TANF) were forced to visit multiple offices to turn in unnecessary paperwork. Many families lack reliable transportation, and the frequent office visits interfered with work and school schedules, making it impossible for them to complete the process.

We also found that CYFD sent confusing and threatening letters to participating families in an attempt to illegally recoup erroneous prior overpayments of child care benefits. The letters demanded clients return money within 15 days or have their balance sent to collections. Unpaid overpayments can bar families from the child care assistance program. Families eligible for assistance often live from paycheck to paycheck and unexpected bills can cause financial distress and bankruptcy.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty reached out to CYFD and informed them that the requests for back payment were illegal. We also offered to help streamline their administrative processes to improve access to the child care assistance program, especially for the lowest income families that are automatically eligible.

CYFD agreed to stop sending the letters and accepted our proposal to drastically simplify the application process. The state also issued regulations that established a clear time frame for processing applications so families do not have to wait indefinitely for benefits if they are eligible. Since these changes were implemented, nearly $24,000 has been returned to families who were illegally changed for prior over payments and there has been a 39 percent increase in enrollment of the families already enrolled in TANF.

While this is great progress there are still far fewer people enrolled in the program than who are eligible. There’s much more work to be done. Families are still required to turn in in unnecessary paperwork and have difficulty in the application process because notices that families receive are not translated into Spanish.  Families are not informed about their right to appeal a denial of benefits.

Find out if you’re eligible for child care assistance and learn how to apply here. You can find information in Spanish here. Please spread the word!

Photo credit: freeABQimages.com