2006-08-16 / Features

Gotbaum: Hunger Hotline Fails New Yorkers In Need

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum charged the city with continued mismanagement of what was once an effective anti-hunger tool, the Hunger Hotline. Gotbaum conducted a follow-up to her May 2004 investigation of the system, which provides hungry New Yorkers with the information they need to access emergency food at soup kitchens and pantries and determined that it still provides inaccurate and insufficient information much of the time.

In 2004, an estimated 1.2 million New York City residents, including 417,000 children, lived in households facing hunger. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, 73 percent of emergency food programs surveyed had experienced an increase in demand for their services in the past year.

"The Human Resources Administration (HRA) is sending hungry New Yorkers on a wild goose chase," Gotbaum said. "The Human Resources Administration has known about these problems but hasn't solved them."

Representatives of the Office of the Public Advocate placed 169 calls to the hotline from June 5 through June 30, 2006. They found the following:

+Clients cannot depend on the hotline to provide accurate hours of operation for emergency food programs. In 39 percent of calls made, the hotline provided incorrect hours of operation.

+The hotline does not provide necessary information. Forty-nine percent of programs contacted require clients to bring specific documents or make appointments. The hotline does not provide this information, putting clients at risk of being turned away.

+The automated hotline does not indicate how to access a live operator. The recording on the automated hotline states that operator assistance is available Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it does not instruct callers in how to reach an operator.

+The hotline may not be effective during evening and weekend hours. Of the 17 calls placed during evening and weekend hours, 5 (29 percent) failed to result in referrals to programs available in the time and area selected.

+Clients who speak languages other than English and Spanish cannot depend on the hotline. The automated hotline only functions in English and Spanish. Clients with limited proficiency in these languages can only obtain assistance if they are able to determine how to reach an HRA operator. HRA operators, however, were unable to connect four out of the five "other language calls" to an appropriate translator.

Gotbaum also noted that the hotline fails to provide information about expedited Food Stamps, which could lead callers to believe that emergency food assistance is only available through soup kitchens and food pantries. Investigators from the Office of the Public Advocate determined that 311 is also an unreliable source of information about Food Stamps. Of the 50 calls placed to 311 regarding food assistance, operators failed to inform callers about Food Stamps in 20 cases (40 percent). Neither the Hunger Hotline nor 311 provides callers with information about other food assistance programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

HRA took over the Hunger Hotline from City Harvest in April 2003 and switched it from a live to an automated service. At the time, the city promised to update the information on the system daily, operate the hotline in six languages, provide access to a live operator during regular business hours and collaborate with private food providers to increase the number of participating programs. These promises remain unfulfilled.

"The old service worked for 23 years," Gotbaum said. "Live operators not only gave you all the information you needed, they made appointments for you at a pantry in your neighborhood. HRA claimed they could make this system better by automating it. Instead, hungry New Yorkers are still getting information that's out of date, incomplete or just plain wrong. We're still waiting for the new and improved service we were promised."

Gotbaum made the following recommendations to improve the Hunger Hotline:

Update information on food programs regularly.

Inform callers of any appointments and documents they may need to gain access to specific food programs.

Increase the number of automated languages to at least six, as promised in 2003.

Expand callers' options by informing them of non-city-funded programs, including programs that operate during evenings and weekends.

"If you can't find food, you can't eat," Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "The Hunger Hotline is still making it far too difficult for people to access emergency food programs and still giving them the false impression they can't use Food Stamps in an emergency. I urge the city to follow the Public Advocate's recommendations so struggling families have all the information they need to get help."

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