About a year ago, Jamilyn Fenn noticed she was helping a lot of elders in the Seward area repeatedly fill out applications for food stamp benefits. The elders thought their applications were getting denied, but really they were caught up in the state’s food stamp backlog for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Fenn is a finance manager for the Qutekcak Native Tribe, but she’s also a pro-bono lawyer representative for Alaska Legal Services. She hasn’t passed the bar in the state. She’s a specially trained volunteer that helps people from all over Alaska navigate the legal system with oversight from attorneys at Alaska Legal Services through the community justice worker program. The program serves a variety of needs, including those related to the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
“They give nonlawyers like myself the ability to represent clients in certain avenues,” Fenn said. “Like domestic violence advocate, SNAP benefits representative, and then ICWA representative. And I can draft wills and trusts.”
Alaska Legal Services reached out to her and asked that she take on food stamp cases from around the state in addition to helping her tribal members navigate their benefits. Fenn estimates she helped up to 75 people get fair hearings — and their food stamps.
“I brought one family $19,996 in back payments,” she said. “Back in April, it was the highest Alaska Legal Services has ever been able to get.”
The state has been making headway on working through backlogged cases, but many Alaskans are still waiting. Fenn said she got five requests for a fair hearing on Tuesday alone.
She’s just one of the volunteers that helped Alaska Legal Services’ staff attorneys file fair hearings appeals for nearly 2,000 Alaskans to get their food stamps. At the height of the backlog this February, the organization got nearly 500 calls for help with food stamps; this month they’re down to 166 requests. Last year at this time, they got five.
August Amy used to work for Alaska Legal Services before she opened her own consulting business in Anchorage and said she signed up for the community justice worker program when it began. She said the overwhelming majority of the cases she’s worked are to help people get food stamps, and that’s emotionally difficult.
“We’ve heard stories of people eating dog kibble in the villages because they have no more food,” she said. “I’ve heard stories from various food banks of just having completely empty shelves.”
The state is supposed to issue food stamps within 30 days of an application, but she said wait times are typically twice that. The state is supposed to get emergency applications — benefits for people with no food or money — within a week. She said most that she’s seen are waiting for a month.
“They’re eligible for these benefits because of their income level and to not have them means they’re taking from rent, they’re taking from child care — so they could be working more — they’re taking from utilities,” she said. “All these things have a risk to them, right? Like, if their benefits collapsed and they’re using all their money that was allocated for food stamps on something else, it’s just a very precarious position to be in.”
Amy said she’s helped about 30 families get food stamps since February. She said it’s both humbling and concerning. Some families even reach out to her afterwards.
“It’s such a thing to have their benefits that they want to update you and let you know that they really fed their kids today, and they had a really good meal,” she said. “It’s not a normal update to get. You and I don’t call people and say, ‘Hey, I ate a good meal today.’”
Amy still gets a couple of food stamp cases a week, but said demand has slowed from the peak she saw in February, when she was getting five or six cases weekly.
Sarah Carver, a senior attorney for Alaska Legal Services, said there are more than 200 volunteers throughout the state in dozens of communities, but a core group of about 10 of them managed most of the food stamp cases this year. She runs the Justice for All program that trains people like Fenn and Amy on how to advocate for fair hearings.
“Everything goes through Alaska Legal Services, but they are the person on the ground delivering the legal services, with us as backup,” she said. “Community justice workers can do the same exact work in these SNAP cases that the attorneys can do. And they are doing it just as effectively.”
Some of the volunteers are affiliated with tribes, or with the health care system as behavioral health aides. Others work for domestic violence shelters or homeless shelters, or with elders at community centers.
Carver said the justice system is supposed to be a place where everybody is treated equally, but “we know that it certainly does not work that way, especially in the civil world. Because in civil cases, you are not entitled to an attorney if you cannot afford one.”
She said the community justice workers who were trained to help people get fair hearings for food stamps have been invaluable in addressing the “huge crisis” of the backlog. Internally, Alaska Legal Services didn’t have the capacity to manage that many fair hearing requests. And she said the community justice workers were valuable in educating people that the food stamp delay was not legally acceptable.
“A lot of times people had no idea that the fact that their benefits are delayed isn’t just an administrative problem, it’s a legal problem,” Carver said. “And there are legal remedies, because there are laws in place that direct how the program is supposed to be run.”
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• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.