The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the Food Stamps program, which enables low-income people, including those who are homeless, to buy food. At the local level, the program is often implemented in the same offices where people go to apply for TANF, Medicaid, and other public assistance benefits. A similar policy perspective is shared across the federal agencies that administer these programs. However, while TANF is targeted to families and Medicaid is directed to both families and to individuals with disabilities or high medical expenses, food stamps are, in principle, available to the entire homeless population.
Homeless families are typically eligible for food stamps based on income alone, as are non-disabled single adults over 50. However, non-disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 50 face significant time limits in the receipt of food stamps. People in this category may only receive food stamps for 3 months out of a 36-month period, unless they are working at least 20 hours per week or enrolled in a job training program. As in the TANF program, the disability standard is not nearly as stringent as that used by the SSDI and SSI programs. A letter from a doctor, provided to the food stamp office, is typically sufficient proof of disability meaning that work requirements will not apply.
Food stamps are a significant income support for individuals and families attempting to leave homelessness. Often most of a TANF grant or an SSI benefit goes to pay rent in permanent housing; receipt of food stamps may allow a household to reach a subsistence level. Food stamps also are an important source of income support for people who leave homelessness with a job. A household may earn up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line and still be eligible for food stamps. The food stamps benefit is reduced by no more than 36 cents for every dollar earned.
The NSHAPC indicated that 31 percent of homeless single adults were receiving food stamps, compared to 71 percent of people in homeless families (Burt, Aron, & Lee, 1999). No research has reviewed the reasons for this disparity. However, it can be inferred that program restrictions on the receipt of benefits by non-disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 50 are responsible for much of this disparity.
Homeless persons who are living on the street can find it difficult to interact with local food stamp offices. They typically do not have the documentation necessary to apply for benefits or a mailing address at which to receive important notices. In addition many applicants for food stamps are incorrectly told that they are ineligible for benefits if they are living in a homeless shelter, particularly if the shelter serves meals. However, this is incorrect. Residents of homeless shelters are exempted from the general rule that residents of institutions providing more than 50 percent of daily meals are ineligible for food stamps, and often persons who are homeless will want food stamps to supplement shelter meals for their children or to purchase food while they are away from a shelter at work (Rosen, Hoey, & Steed, 2001; GAO, 2000).
A recent study tested the effect of housing and substance use treatment histories on the receipt of food stamps. The study showed that people who were homeless or unstably housed were less likely to receive food stamps than people in stable housing. Conversely, people receiving current substance use treatment were more likely to receive food stamps (Nwakeze et al., 2003). This study indicates that people who are stably housed are more likely to obtain government benefits.
Many homeless families believe that food stamps are linked to the TANF program, particularly its time limits. As a result, they are reluctant to apply for food stamps, not wanting to have months of food stamp receipt count against their lifetime five-year TANF time limit.
There are a number of key recommendations for improving homeless persons access to food stamps. The first, and perhaps most important, is outreach. States are advised to put caseworkers in hospitals, homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Another recommendation is for states to train workers at homeless shelters, so those workers can ensure that their eligible clients receive food stamps. Finally, agencies must exhibit flexibility in working with homeless persons. A homeless person should be able to pick up a letter at the local office instead of having it mailed, and if a homeless person needs help in obtaining documentation, agencies should fulfill their obligation to provide that assistance. These recommendations can be expected to increase homeless persons access to food stamp benefits (K. Gale Consulting, 2003; Rosen, Hoey, & Steed, 2001; GAO, 2000).
Employment Programs Linked to Food Stamps. For single non-disabled adults who must register for work, USDA has a Food Stamps Employment and Training program (FSET). Funds are awarded in each state based on the number of work registrants in that state. In addition to these funds, states may draw additional FSET resources through the 50:50 matching program in which states use non-federal revenue to match federal dollars. In FY2005 total FSET funds expended were $466,599,435, including federal and state resources.
Delivering services through a variety of local entities, such as TANF offices, community-based service providers, or One-Stop Career Centers, FSET focuses on placing food stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependents in employment and training slots to enhance their ability to gain unsubsidized private sector employment. About 30 percent of food stamp recipients are exempt from mandatory participation because of disability, taking care of a child under six, or being employed 30 or more hours a week, but they can voluntarily access employment and training services without the sanctions that may be applied to mandatory participants.
Several communities including Seattle, Houston, and Boston have used FSET resources to help homeless job seekers who are food stamp recipients. Anecdotally, it seems that participants who participate in employment services voluntarily are more job-ready than participants mandated to participate and referred from the local food stamps office.
Reports about FSET focus on information about how states operate their programs (Botsko et al., 2001). There are no FSET evaluations or reports specifically evaluating the inputs and results of employment and training services for homeless job seekers who receive food stamps, or whether the program helps participants get a job. In preparing its report to Congress, the GAO surveyed 15 states and found the entered employment rate ranged from 15 percent of enrolled participants to 62 percent (GAO, 2003).