Updated Saturday, August 15, 2015 at 11:32 a.m.
HARTFORD — For almost three weeks, Al Lopez went hungry in Connecticut. He was alone and bedridden in Avon after he returned from the John Dempsey Hospital in May. The cupboards were empty. The electricity was off. But Northeast Utilities, Community Renewal Team and other social agencies said no to his plea for help. So Lopez lived on just sugar and water for those three weeks until a neighbor returned from a business trip. Lopez then limped down the stairs to talk to his neighbor, who called 911. After being in the emergency room for hours, the nurses admitted him into the hospital’s psychiatric unit, where he stayed for three days and was released. The doctors deduced he was hungry — not mentally ill.
This experience was a first for the soft-spoken, 43-year-old man with a Jamaican lilt.
“It was an unpleasant experience,” said Lopez who now stays with a relative. “I survived it.”
— Elizabeth Esty (@RepEsty) March 25, 2015
Hunger, that uneasy or painful experience caused by lack of food, affects about 390,000 people in Connecticut every year, according to a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center. In May 2015, about one in seven people nationwide received help from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or Food Stamps. And about one in nine were unemployed or underemployed, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Lopez, an Afro-Latino who recently emigrated from Jamaica, went hungry for almost three weeks, he said, because his caseworkers and state officials said “I wasn’t eligible” for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So he was denied food stamps by the Department of Social Services while he was underemployed and unemployed. Community Renewal Team also delayed energy assistance applications for several months; and the Connecticut Light and Power company, now called Eversource, refused to reduce his relative’s electric bill to keep the lights on.
Previous research shows that many immigrants do not apply for food stamps or know that this and other social services exist. Or, like Lopez, they are denied services or they received inadequate or delayed assistance while they integrate into their new home. Since 2000, about 50 percent of immigrant households with little or no education received social services. Prior to that, most immigrants would do two or three menial jobs. Now, experts say, they are assimilated into the welfare system instead of jobs with livable wages. And in some cases educated black immigrants are pushed out of white-collar jobs and onto welfare.
A recent immigrant adjusting to work, school and life in America, Lopez received little or no help from the social agencies he signed up with when he lost his job as a customer representative at Big Y in Avon. Last fall, Gifts of Love turned him away, saying they were not taking new applicants. So he went to Hartford Hospital, and they placed him in the Institute of Living mainly, he said, because they didn’t understand him, his accent and his customs. He was just anxious about his new home, how to find another job and how to cope with the loss of his mother before he was attacked by nativists in Hartford, he said. After relatives called 911, Hartford police officers took him to Capitol Region Mental Health Center, a community-based mental health facility operated by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The staff there failed to secure food stamps and Medicaid for him.
Lopez’s Case Manager, Morris Mendez, said he did the paperwork and did not know why Lopez was denied. So Lopez followed up with his clinician at Capitol Region in Hartford, Roxanne Ellis-Denby.
“Unfortunately, you get the most help when you are in hospitals or jails,” said Ellis-Denby, who is Lopez’s clinician for about three years. “And he’s not eligible for food stamps or Medicaid until after five years here.”
Lopez’s eligibility is clear.
According to DSS’s website, every Connecticut resident (citizens and non citizens), whose income and assets are within the set limits are eligible for food stamps. Lopez was in school and work until October 2014. Because of being misdiagnosed, his clinician scheduled frequent visits to Capitol Region, so he could get help with other social services, he said. After his last visit to Capitol Region in October, he has been without a job and has zero income.
When asked why he was put in a psych ward in May, he said, they told him he had “anxieties.”
Civil Rights Advocate said that anxiety is not a reason to be in a mental institution. Lopez’s experience is only about someone adjusting to a new home or a process of acculturation, not mental illness, they said. Besides, even if he was a recent immigrant, there’s absolutely no reason DSS should delay or deny food stamps to someone unemployed, underemployed, sick or homeless,” they said.
But representatives in Hartford’s DSS office did, even though there is no backlog, according to DSS spokesman David Dearborn.
“In fact, we have an over 96 percent timeliness rate for SNAP application processing in the last six-month period evaluated by the federal government, which runs from October 2014 through March 2015,” he said. “Our internal data show that we have been maintaining that excellent rate to date.”
Lopez’s experience with DSS contradicts that prevailing trend at the department.
When contacted, a representative in the Hartford office said Lopez was denied in 2012 and 2014 when he was ill and underemployed. And despite submitting all the required documents, his application has been delayed since April 2015.
Some immigrant advocates believe Lopez is a victim of the anti-immigrant sentiment in Hartford and beyond.
Hate group membership has expanded since 2005 — fueled largely by anti-immigrant sentiment. But after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, it spiked. That’s according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks right-wing extremists and hate groups.
Black immigrants, they say, are subjected to a particular brand of nativism—akin to the ethno-racism found among the Irish community in the early 1900s. It is now pervasive among African Americans, who are in these positions to help black immigrants but often failed to do so, they said. Xenophobia among native-born blacks is a disturbing trend in the age of Obama, the first African-American president in the United States. And many native-born blacks now believe they “are more endowed with more rights” than black immigrants, who are pushed away by African-American and Hispanic communities. So they, “fall between the cracks,” advocates said.
Lopez is of one of many who fell between those cracks in a xenophobic society spurred by immigration reform debates since 2007.
“There is a damaging immigration narrative that is largely predicated on anti-Blackness,” said Marybeth Onyeukwu, in Truthout. “ However, there are recent attempts to discuss immigration in a way that is inclusive of the Black immigrant experience,” disallowing the erasure of Black immigrants.
Despite a ban on discrimination based on national origin and ancestry, Lopez’s situation seems to be an anomaly or a result of unconscious bias, which consists of a series of micro aggressions toward black immigrants — even from native born blacks. This incredible incident of hunger in Connecticut is, therefore, the cumulative effect of a blatant indifference toward someone’s need for help, advocates say. And black immigrants from the West Indies are less likely than Hispanic immigrants to feel empowered about exercising their constitutional rights, said Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Joyce Hamilton-Henry.
“Hispanic immigrants have unabashed demands that they have equal protection,” she said. “West Indians (some of whom are Afro-Latinos) are not as politically empowered.”
Accessing welfare and other programs—including jobs—can be seen as an indication that some immigrants have a difficult time assimilating in America. Black immigrants from the West Indies, pushed out of jobs because of anti-immigrant sentiments and other reasons, are now often assimilated into the welfare system, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.
“When anti-immigrant sentiments are present,” Hamilton-Henry said, “all of us are threatened.”
The delayed SNAP application left Lopez food deficient for about a month. He called DSS and was put on hold for more than 70 minutes. As of press time, he’s still waiting for his application to be approved.
The story is based on the experiences of volunteers with the Connecticut Alliance for Better Communities, which publishes The Hartford Guardian. The name Al Lopez was used to protect the source used in this story.