Our Benefits Access Center

With a Mission ‘to feed and empower those they serve to move beyond the lines of poverty,’ The River Fund began expanding its services in 2009 to include Benefits Access Assistance. Why? There are over 40 different benefits and services that needy people can apply for—some government-sponsored, others from non-government sources. Yet, most people living in poverty don’t know about these programs, and when they do hear about them, many valuable hours are wasted sitting in numerous offices all over the City, instead of on more productive pursuits. For each program, clients must (1) inquire and wait to discover whether or not they qualify for the assistance, (2) go through another lengthy process to apply, and then (3) follow up with additional documentation. Finally, if they are approved, there are (4) periodic re-certifications that take even more time.

All of this keeps many families in poverty because the ‘head of household’ is forced to make benefits access his or her fulltime job—spending the majority of every workweek on these enrollment and recertification processes instead of looking for employment. At The River Fund’s Benefits Access Center clients get one-stop prescreening, prequalification and enrollment in all of the benefits and services for which they qualify—thus saving needy families the expense and frustration of visiting dozens of different locations. Further, The River Fund stays involved and helps them maintain their benefits through the various periodic re-certifications.

For many observers, The River Fund’s ability to provide this depth of service to the community as a volunteer-only organization was nothing short of miraculous. Thus, in 2012, The Robin Hood Foundation invited The River Fund to submit a proposal through which the organization could transition from being volunteer-only to one that, at least partially, compensates its staff.

Since then, our Benefits Access Center is open and staffed six days a week. Our Benefits Agents help clients to develop a customized path for themselves.

Food insufficiency is only one component of a client’s poverty-profile, and not all clients come to us via our Food Pantry first. (For a more detailed understanding of poverty in New York City, please click here.) The other issues clients face are very wide-ranging: under-employment; exploitation on the job; accidents; impossibly low income, though employed (like Home Health Aides only being allowed to work fewer than 15 hours per week—and receiving only minimum wage for those hours); violence in the home; landlord and tenant problems; and countless other trigger-stressors that bring them to us for their initial contact.

However, by the time the client arrives at our door to address the major problem that is driving their material hardships, they have typically sacrificed the family food-budget trying to deal with the problem on their own. Hence, as soon as a client comes to our Benefits Access Center, we immediately provide them with a food-handout consisting of a week’s worth of groceries for their household—because food is ALWAYS, for us, “the first line of defense in the battle against poverty.”

Knowing that they are going home with food for the kids makes it easier for the client to concentrate as their assigned Benefits Agent works with them on finding the first empowering step on their path forward. As our Mission states, it’s a process of “feeding” THEN “empowering.”

In selecting the first step, our agents are careful not to overwhelm the client: People who have been battered by the vicissitudes that befall them—and downtrodden to the degree where they need to cope with the dignity-bruising reality of accepting handouts of donated food—usually have a hard time ‘seeing light at the end of the tunnel.’ The first step we direct them to take towards being re-empowered MUST be one that they can successfully accomplish—otherwise we run the risk of smothering the flickering fighting spirit that we just managed to rekindle.

As they successfully achieve one empowering step after the next, we can see their confidence growing—and their ability to come up with their own ideas for improving their situation. Getting people to advance like this requires compassionate case-management supported by effective programs that deliver meaningful support to the needy household.

However, when programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”—a.k.a. “Food Stamps”), get eroded through legislative cuts, like the Farm Bill’s cash-redistributions that took place in 2013/2014, our ability to move households out of poverty is challenged, because once-meaningful stepping-stones that our agents had in our arsenal gradually become meaningless band-aids. This creates more work for us because our Benefits Access Center is forced to find other steps that we can offer clients to help them develop their self-empowerment. It’s an ongoing, often heartrending, struggle.

Helping a client get Food StampsHere a client is being enrolled for SNAP-Benefits ("Food Stamps"). Since we have our own private portal directly into the electronic network of the New York City Human Resources Administration, our clients can save the trip to the government's Food Stamp Office.

Our Clients Love Our Waiting RoomIn the waiting room of our Benefits Access Center, clients watch TV and/or get free copies of informative magazines and other literature that we always have on hand.

In Our Office There's Always Time for KidsSince 40% of the people we serve are children, everyone in our office always has time for kids; and children often accompany their parents to our Benfits Access Center. In serving their families, we want kids to understand that they—themselves—are important to us.

Clients Get Free Flu Shots in the SeasonOur Benefits Access Center is also the place where several of partner organizations provide special services to our clients—like Walgreens/Duane Reade providing free flu-shots when the season rolls around.

Support our Poverty Amelioration Work:
 Be a Monthly Donor
 Tax Help for the Working Poor
 Child Poverty Initiatives
 From Hunger to Hope

 


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