Nikita Chase is a single mom with two kids at home. She said she hasn’t gotten her food stamps since October.
“You’re supposed to get it on the first [of the month], but you’re not getting anything. And there’s no communication,” she said. “So everybody’s just sitting, waiting, up in the air. And when you call, you get no answers.”
The state made it easier to get food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits, during the pandemic. Last year, more than 80,000 Alaskans used the program.
But this fall, many Alaskans were asked to refile their paperwork.
Chase said she did that in October — and hasn’t gotten a response.
The first time she reached out to the Alaska Division of Public Assistance for help, she was told she was the 111th caller on the line. She never got a call back. The second time she waited on hold for hours.
“Four and a half hours! Just to talk to somebody who then informed me that there were 18,000-plus cases that needed to be worked,” she said. “This is happening to a lot of people, and they’re not getting these SNAP benefits, so they’re gonna have to make a choice between paying their bills or feeding their families.”
Chase said she can’t pay her electric bill this month because she chose to spend the money on food for her family. She says this comes right before a cold snap in the region — and the holidays.
“We won’t be having a big Christmas dinner and things are a lot tighter,” she said. “I’m concerned about when I will get food stamps or food benefits. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. So now instead of having freedom to buy a lot of fresh things at the store, everything’s either frozen or canned.”
Chase lives in Tenakee Springs, a remote town in Southeast Alaska. She sent her paperwork by mail, which can take a long time coming from her community. She’s afraid she’ll be at the end of what sounds like a long line.
“Around Thanksgiving, you know, I call again. I’m asking these people for help, and to find out what’s going on. And they basically told me, there’s nothing that they can do. And that I just have to wait,” she said.
That wait is especially tough in remote places. Chase’s dollars go farther if she shops in Juneau, but there are only two more ferries into town this year. If her food stamps don’t go through before then, she’ll be waiting until March for a ferry out of town. Some smaller towns also lack the food pantries and other resources of urban centers.
“I definitely have heard news of people not getting their food stamps,” said Luke Vroman, who runs Juneau’s homeless shelter, The Glory Hall. “Even just yesterday a client of mine mentioned that she’d been told it could be months for her food stamps to be approved.”
He said The Glory Hall needs to know about any backups in case they need to start preparing more meals.
“They need to come out with a statement because there’s definitely a buzz. People have figured out that it’s not operating as it’s supposed to be,” Vroman said.
Ernie Hard helps people navigate social services for Bartlett Regional Hospital and he’s hearing from clients who aren’t getting food stamps, too. He and his colleagues have tried to call Public Assistance, but they had to wait like Nikita Chase did.
“I’ve seen it with my coworker, they’ll get put on hold and let you know that you’re number 236 and you got a three-hour wait line,” he said.
Hard said he works with employees at the Division of Public Assistance a lot, and he’s sympathetic because he thinks the division is understaffed.
“The people there are super nice and helpful,” he said. “But, you know, they’re swamped. Which is tough for everybody. It’s tough for them, and it’s tough for the people that need the service.”
DPA has not responded to KTOO’s requests for comment over the course of the last week. When KTOO visited the division’s offices, Director Shawnda O’Brien declined an interview. She said the division was still working to decide what information to share with the public.
The division has not said how many people are waiting for their food stamps, how much longer the estimated wait time is, or what is causing the delay. It has not said whether SNAP recipients will receive the money for the months they had to wait.