A busy city-run benefits center where New Yorkers got help applying for food, rental aid, and other cash assistance near Union Square shuttered this week, sending droves of New Yorkers who frequented it scrambling to find alternatives.
A stream of people trying to get help at the Waverly SNAP Center on Wednesday afternoon — two days after its official closure on Monday — were met with locked doors and a sign directing them to a Human Resources Administration building several blocks away on East 16th Street.
City officials referred to the closure as a consolidation of offices and said it should not present a hardship to those who relied on the facility, though Gothamist spoke with multiple New Yorkers who said they were confused and frustrated, some of whom were unable to access services at the nearby facility.
Anthony Jones said he was turned away at the East 16th Street location after he was redirected there from East 14th Street, while trying to figure out why his food assistance benefits had dried up.
“They’re telling me I don’t belong here in this one, I have to go all the way to Brownsville, Brooklyn, that’s where my case is at,” he said. “It’s a system that’s in disarray.”
Gothamist observed one elderly woman in tears, struggling to walk and clutching a closure notice with a new address.
Julia Savel, a spokesperson for the HRA, said the closure consolidated the agency’s operations of the two offices near Union Square. “Clients will not experience any changes in their receipt of services and may avail themselves of services at any HRA benefits center they choose to visit,” she said.
Additional correspondence from HRA Administrator Lisa Fitzpatrick, provided to Gothamist, indicated the city had lost its long-standing lease at the East 14th Street building.
Mike Johnson, an HRA building engineer exiting the locked facility on Wednesday afternoon, said he didn’t think there was any reason for people to be confused.
It’s up to them if they know how to read or don’t know how to read ... That was probably inconvenient, but they were notified for the past month.
“It’s up to them if they know how to read or don’t know how to read,” he said, pointing to the sign on the door telling people to go elsewhere. “That was probably inconvenient, but they were notified for the past month.”
The abrupt closure caused a wave of confusion in a system that’s already difficult to navigate for the roughly 1.8 million New Yorkers struggling to stay afloat on the city-managed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Some people were told their cases were transferred to a SNAP center on 125th Street, according to Roxanna Henry, a social worker at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center.
Others were sent to East 16th Street and told to use a self-service kiosk, but were not offered help with operating it. The East 16th Street location is described as being “self-service,” with a skeleton staff, rather than a full-service office like the Waverly location.
“They're really just restricting access to benefits on the people themselves, because they simply don't know how to use technology,” Henry said. “They're ignoring the problem.”
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city shut down three SNAP centers in 2019: two in Brooklyn and one in Harlem. At the time, city officials argued, decreasing the agency’s physical footprint made sense with more New Yorkers conducting interviews on the phone and accessing benefits online, the Daily News reported. But there are perennial complaints about a buggy, difficult-to-use app and phone calls that often go unanswered. Showing up at an office where you can speak to someone face-to-face is often a last act of desperation, Henry said.
“When you go into the center, it's because there is a crisis,” Henry said. “You wanna know why you can’t feed your kids, or what's going on with your cash benefits.”
Clients often describe hostile behavior from city benefits workers and say their cases are regularly closed for no reason, a report from the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center found. These issues came to a head in 2018, when Jazmine Headly, who had been waiting for hours for help at a city HRA site, was arrested and had her baby ripped from her arms. She spent four nights on Rikers Island for sitting on the floor of a Brooklyn SNAP center. A video of her arrest went viral and she later won $625,000 in a settlement with the city.
Despite regular concerns about service at the Waverly SNAP Center, it was a known location for many homeless New Yorkers living on the streets or staying in lower Manhattan shelters. It was also the setting for a 1975 documentary about welfare.
“I don't think they should close them,” said Bashiekh Wood, who said he was trying to figure out why his case had been closed and feared losing a housing voucher to get out of his shelter because of it. He had no luck addressing the issue using the app. “Sometimes you wanna talk to somebody.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Roxanna Henry.