For Immediate Release
March 6, 2000
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736
Mayor Keeps Needy in the Dark
Make the Road by Walking and Welfare Recipients File Lawsuit to Help People Get the Information They Need to Obtain Food and Medical Care
On March 6, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the New York Legal Assistance Group, and the Welfare Law Center filed a complaint asking a federal court to declare unconstitutional New York City’s rules barring welfare advocates from welfare offices. Plaintiffs in the case are the membership-based community organization Make the Road by Walking and welfare recipients who went through terrible hardships as a result of being denied benefits while the City gave them partial and/or inaccurate information regarding their cases. Plaintiffs seek an injunction requiring the City to allow advocates to enter welfare offices in order to provide information to enable interested individuals to learn about their rights. The lawsuit was announced on Monday, March 6 at an 11:00 a.m. press conference in front of the Waverly welfare center at 12 West 14th Street.
“Welfare centers are not dungeons, and claimants cannot be kept in the dark,” says Laura Abel, staff attorney at the Brennan Center. “The City should allow the welfare claimants who go there to get the information they need. Letting advocates in is the right thing to do in a democratic society and not something the mayor should fear.”
Unlike previous administrations, the current City administration bars welfare advocates from entering welfare offices (unless they accompany a specific client). Welfare advocates, who understand how the City’s complex welfare system operates, could potentially help many people, and may even help improve the overall functioning of the centers if the City would allow them in. An advocate can help people gain the assistance of an interpreter, or correct an address, supply an essential document or correct a misunderstanding about the meaning of the law. In fact, the courts have recognized the need for welfare advocates in the past. Co-Director Oona Chatterjee of plaintiff organization Make the Road by Walking says, “The sad truth is that Mayor Giuliani’s welfare system routinely violates poor New Yorkers’ rights. We go to welfare centers to promote a city government that is accountable to the people. That’s what democracy is supposed to be all about. Mayor Giuliani could use an elementary civics lesson.
Make the Road by Walking is a membership-based not for profit organization based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which promotes accountable government and citizen participation through community organizing. It also provides free legal services and community legal education. Isabel Gonzalez, a Make the Road by Walking advocate and organizer adds, “What’s going on at the welfare centers is a nightmare. People are forced to sit in the waiting areas with their children for hours each day, often for days or weeks at a time, to fix agency errors that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. People leave the center exhausted, deceived and humiliated with urgent problems still unresolved, problems that deny poor children food and sick people medical care.” New York City’s systematic denial of benefits to the eligible poor has been widely reported by the New York press and severely criticized by state and federal courts, the United States Department of Agriculture (which administers the food stamps program), and the state Department of Health. This suit argues that denying poor people access to advocates who could help them navigate the system and aid in overcoming illegal barriers is yet another method that the City is using to deprive the needy of benefits. The lawsuit alleges that the City’s exclusion of welfare advocates violates the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association of advocates and welfare claimants. In particular, the lawsuit says that the City excludes advocates because it dislikes their viewpoints, and wants to make things difficult for welfare claimants by providing misinformation that keeps them in the dark. The welfare claimants also assert violations of their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.