Government

DHS offices throughout the state have been closed for 22 months…

“The lack of assistance is a barrier that is preventing some Rhode Islanders from getting and keeping critical services like SNAP, cash assistance and especially child care – things that are desperately needed at this time
Photo for DHS offices throughout the state have been closed for 22 months…

Published on January 5, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

“I’ve been hearing from a lot of residents about the lack of access to services at DHS,” said Senator Melissa Murray (Democrat, District 24, North Smithfield, Woonsocket) to press gathered outside the Department of Human Services offices on Pond Street in Woonsocket. Senator Murray was joined by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and fellow Senators Alana DiMario (Democrat, District 36, Narragansett) and Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls).

“DHS offices closed for in person services at the onset of Covid. That was 22 months ago,” explained Senator Murray. “The lack of assistance is a barrier that is preventing some Rhode Islanders from getting and keeping critical services like SNAP, cash assistance and especially child care – things that are desperately needed at this time.”

In September, when enhanced unemployment benefits ended, more people were in need of SNAP and cash assistance. Recipients lost benefits when renewals for SNAP and RI Works benefits restarted if they were unable to complete the renewal process. In addition, in order for parents of young children to return to work, they need rapid access to child care assistance. Applicants and recipients who have problems getting or keeping benefits are directed to contact the DHS call center, where there are hours-long wait times to speak with a DHS representative who may not even be able to resolve the presenting problem.

DHS instructs people to use its online application system, but many do not have internet service or devices or may not have the digital skills to navigate the application process. Unlike the online application process for Medicaid, there is no network of community assistance providers to help complete the online application and trouble-shoot problems.

DHS is currently run by interim director Celia Blue. Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee has yet to nominate someone to run the Department on a permanent basis.

In Woonsocket, the local DHS and DLT (Department of Labor and Training) offices now share an address. But while residents can make an appointment to see a staff person at DLT, there is a “closed” sign for DHS, with some materials available in the lobby, but no assistance from DHS staff. The drop box where people can submit applications and required documents is located in the parking lot, with no direction about how and why to use it. Similar lack of information and lack of in-person assistance pervades the other DHS office locations.

DHS opened the Woonsocket office on the day of Senator Murray’s announced press conference, but only with limited services. The office, said Senator Murray, is open “only by appointment, it’s only for RI Works recipients, and it’s only for re-certification, not new applications.”

In addition to a low term plan that re-opens all the DHS offices in the state, Senator Murray and her colleagues are demanding that as DHS pushes people to use the call center, they adequately staff the center so that people don’t have to wait hours to access needed services.

“We are asking to put the human back in human services,” said Senator Murray.

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