The April 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Murder of Mary Katherine King

Eyes Wide Open

California Lifts Food Stamp Ban

The Ordeal of Ramona Choyce

Republicans Shred Disabled Housing

Art and Activism of Jos Sances

The Paintings of Jos Sances

Gambling with Social Security

Billionaires Grow Richer, Poverty Worsens

Existence Itself Is Banned for the Homeless Poor

Bush Policy Errs on Chronic Homelessness

Sankofa House: A Rainbow for Homeless Women

Student Summit Against Hunger

A Lifetime at the Bus Stop

Working for Transit Justice

Poor Leonard's Almanack

BOSS Community Organizing

The Anguish of Classism





May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Ordeal of Ramona Choyce

by Carol Harvey

Oakland mother Ramona Choyce went through an unbelievable ordeal in trying to be reinstated after she was banned from receiving food stamps. Lydia Gans photo

Many wealthy Americans with substance abuse problems possess the means to pay for drug rehabilitation programs and nutritious food to speed their recovery. But what of young mothers like Ramona Choyce, an Oakland resident and recovering addict who lives in extreme poverty?

Ramona's two-year crack habit began in 1998 after the birth of her first baby, "because my baby's daddy was abusing, and I was curious." Child Protective Services removed two of Ramona's four children to foster care. Because she could have lost her youngest son, Jahiem, as well, her motivation to beat her addiction was strong.

"CPS would have taken my baby if I was still using," she said. After three years of imprisonment for drug possession and her successful completion of a recovery program, Ramona has been clean for five years.

"I learned a very big lesson," she confessed. Her goal is to stabilize herself financially and secure adequate housing to get her older children back.

In recognition of the difficulties facing poor mothers like Ramona in providing for their families following recovery from drug addiction, S.F. Assemblyman Mark Leno championed Assembly Bill 1796, and succeeded in lifting the lifetime ban on food stamps for recovering addicts convicted of felony drug possession.

The bill went into effect on January 1, 2005; but the passage of AB 1796 was only half the battle. Word of its passage has been slow to reach those whose quality of life it would benefit.
Leno's bill requires former drug felons to first serve out their sentences and complete a recognized drug program. Ramona Choyce met both requirements by 2003, making her eligible for food stamps now. Yet, many former users have completed their sentences and drug programs, but are unaware that they may now receive food stamps because they have fulfilled the requirements.

Bill Hart, executive director of San Francisco's General Assistance Advocacy Project (GAAP), expressed concern that former drug felons across California, believing they were prohibited for life from receiving the benefit, have been forced to use their children's food stamps to feed their families.

Social service agencies seem not to actively disseminate such information, nor do they assertively administer benefits to their clients. No mailings seem to have been sent or announcements made. In Ramona Choyce's case, the agencies seem to have taken steps that actively barred her receipt of her food stamp entitlement.

In managing her complicated life, Ramona resembles a circus performer balancing spinning plates on sticks. A roommate will soon move out, leaving Ramona with $950 in monthly rent payments she cannot meet. A male relative who was helping out lost benefits when he turned 18. Visits to friends and her church's food pantry help supplement what little food she has. Food stamps would considerably ease her financial strain.

At age 26, Ramona has found a job working 15-plus hours a week as a nurse's aide to a 108-year-old woman.

Ramona's goal is to stabilize her family financially to get her older children back. However, despite having successfully met the bill's requirements, and procuring a new job, Ramona is still forced to use her son's food stamps to feed her family of four: two children, her sister and herself.

Just before the passage of AB 1796, Ramona called the Alameda County Food Bank hotline. The hotline put Sacramento Bee reporters in touch with Ramona, and they reported about her case in an article about the bill published on December 29, 2004. In January, Ramona twice spoke about the provisions of AB 1796 with her social worker at Alameda County Social Services Benefit Center, and asked to apply for food stamps. Apparently, both times the worker told Ramona that she had "heard nothing about" the AB 1796 food stamp benefit.

"The ban was lifted January 1, but not everyone who processes the applications in counties across California knows about it," said Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Food Bank. "County officials, unaware of the new law, may not have changed their protocols yet. They may not have been able to make all the changes necessary to go ahead and accept these applications."

As regulations are written, Leno's staff keeps in touch with the California Human Services Department to ensure the wording honors the bill's intention. "The devil is in the regulations," Leno said, "so we have been keeping an eye on how the department will craft its regulations for the implementation, and we need to make sure that no changes are made from the way we had agreed to things."

Jessica Bartholow, Alameda County Food Bank director of education, advocacy, and outreach, stated, "It is my understanding that the January 1st implementation gives counties up to six months to comply." By July 1, 2005, the ban should be fully lifted statewide. Bartholow also wondered whether that meant clients would receive retroactive pay back to January 1, 2005.

In answer to a query on this point, Andrea Ford, interim policy director at Alameda County Social Services, wrote in a March 28th e-mail: "We are issuing benefits effective January 1, 2005, for individuals who have applied effective this date or applicants who applied for benefits in December... if the disqualified drug felon met all the eligibility conditions (including verification that the use of controlled substance has ceased).

"All other applications are processed according to the date the individual applies for benefits. We cannot go back and issue benefits retroactively to January if the person did not apply for food stamp benefits. (A food stamp application is required for all individuals in order to determine eligibility.)"

In January 2005, because the Alameda County worker told Ramona she knew nothing about AB 1796, Ramona could not submit the food stamp application provided her by the Alameda County Food Bank. The worker's ignorance of the law effectively blocked Ramona from finalizing the requisite paperwork.

This raises the question as to whether Ramona should receive retroactive food stamps from the time she approached the worker and was turned away, rather than from the later date on which she will be forced to apply. Leno told me he would have his staff look into this question.
Andrea Ford's e-mail response clearly indicates a complete knowledge of Bill 1796 and the implications flowing from it. This raises the serious issue of why one of her staff was uninformed about this bill.

Additionally, if the Alameda County Food Bank and the Sacramento Bee knew about the bill's passage, why was an employee at Alameda County Social Services Benefit Center, the food stamp dispensing agency, unaware?

Some argue that Social Services workers labor under a barrage of rules and regulations, and can't keep up with the changes. This explanation seems insufficient, especially since Social Services itself is responsible for creating this convoluted tissue of rules. It is clearly the responsibility of Alameda County Social Services directors to stay alert to new laws that make major changes to such a vitally important lifeline program as food stamps, and to train their workers accordingly.

Why does it devolve to the food stamp applicant, already mired in poverty and recovery, to be fully cognizant of rules and regulations too complex for the social service worker? The end result of the County staff's "lack of knowledge" is that food does not reach the tables of deserving and hungry families.

Laura Bibelheimer, Leno's legislative assistant, phoned Ramona Choyce and urged her to take the documentation of her drug program completion to the social worker when she applied. Prepared to do so, Ramona approached her social worker a second time on March 25, 2005. This time the worker stated she first knew of AB 1796 in February. Again, if the Food Bank knew about the bill in January 2005, why wasn't the agency first in line to administer it?

Ramona said that the Social Services worker insisted that even if she submitted her application and proof of successful drug program completion, the worker still had final, arbitrary power to accept or deny Ramona's food stamp petition.

AB 1796 sets forth two requirements. First, the person must have served their prison sentence. And second, as Leno stated, "The individual would have had to enroll in or complete a drug treatment program or would self-certify that he or she was sober." The individual's written and signed assertion of sobriety is enough.

Considering that the Department of Corrections can verify Ramona did her jail time, and she possesses certification proving she completed her drug rehab program in 2003, I asked Leno whether the worker had unilateral power to override AB 1796 with her own judicial decision.
"I would challenge that," Leno said. "From my understanding of the final form of the bill, the woman would be breaking State law." Leno added that, unfortunately, problems like these are "often the case, especially with a new law."

Bibelheimer cited an appeals process to which applicants like Ramona have access, in which questions about the fair dispensation of food stamps are raised.

Leno encouraged writing letters to editors, using the Internet, and contacting Assembly members to make sure the intent of this law is followed.

The message is clear. For many people, successfully procuring food stamps will require broad awareness of the passage of AB 1796. In order to feed their children and themselves, recovering recipients will be forced to be extremely vigilant and persistent in the pursuit of the federal food stamp entitlement that is their legal right.

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