Update: Treasure Coast desperate for food stamps

By Allison Bybee
Posted by Rachel Leigh

Update: PORT ST. LUCIE, FL (WFLX) - Treasure Coast Families are struggling to make ends meet. So, they turn to food stamps.

As we first reported Wednesday night, many are getting denied only because no one is answering their phone calls.

Thursday the Treasure Coast Chapter of the Department of Children and Families says they received hundreds of calls after our report Wednesday night and were able to help families who have had call problems.

DCF is still apologizing. They say it's not their fault. They blame the cut-backs from the state and federal government.

We walked through the call center. At any given time 10 people are answering phones.

DCF says they're going to analyze the phone system to figure out how to be more efficient. New workers start next week to help with the overload.

So, why the overload on the phone lines? DCF says applications for food stamps are on the rise. One reason, it's easier now to apply online. Another factor: the state of our economy.

High prices, poor economy, rough times pushing families over the edge. Families like the Genest's turning to food stamps, "Because of my son's illness, I can't go back to work. So, now you only have the one income and we can't do it."

Grocery stores are seeing more people handing over the stamps rather than cash. These families are part of a new trend. DCF reports in the last two months alone food stamp applications are up 30 percent. Cherri Sheffer with DCF says, "We are seeing a lot more people that never applied in the past. That's a significant change, you have people that have significantly lost income."

Those new applicants pushing DCF'S call center to the max. Phone operators hearing calls like these: "Ok, $0 in that bank accounty." And "You have no vehicle at all."

Thankfully, this federal program is not cutting corners. If you apply and qualify you will receive assistance. The government making it easy to grab an application online. You can get anywhere from $10 a month to several hundred dollars depending on your situation.

Check out http://www.myflorida.com/accessflorida/ for an application.

Previously: Local families are being denied food stamps because a government agency isn't answering the phone.

Six-month-old Daniel was born with a rare chromosome disorder. His mother, Dawn Genest, was forced to quit her job and tend to her son's numerous doctor visits.

This family of four barely survives on one income. So, they reluctantly turned to food stamps. They put in their application and followed up with the next step: a phone interview. Dawn Genest says, "I called numerous times, and it was just busy, busy, busy. I couldn't get through."

Since Dawn can't get through, her paperwork gets denied. It has been denied six different times." No matter how busy their phones are - this is what it is set-up for. We haven't been lazy, but, now, we have a situation."

The situation: This family struggling to make ends meet. A place Dawn never thought she'd be. "It's very hard between the gas for the doctors' appointments and the food has gotten so expensive. Now, we are down to the one income. You can't make it anymore."

The Treasure Coast Division of the Department of Children and Families says they know there is a problem with their call center. But, in the last two months, food stamp applications have increased 30 percent on the Treasure Coast. All those new applicants from Martin, Okeechobee, Indian River and St. Lucie Counties are tying up the phone lines and the few workers they have. In June, they received 185,000 calls.

Dawn understands the agency's busy, but just hopes the next letter she receives says "approved".

If you are one of the families who has been denied food stamps only because you can't get through on the phones, DCF wants to help relieve some of that stress.

They urge you to keep calling. If you were given a specific appointment time to call, you do have a 30 day window.

If you are about to be denied, call the Client Relations number at 772-467-4176.

DCF says they are going to take a good look at their phone system to see what needs to change.