Storm relief distribution causes unrest

Elm City residents have had to endure long lines to collect FEMA benefit cards post-Irene.
Elm City residents have had to endure long lines to collect FEMA benefit cards post-Irene. Photo by Tapley Stephenson.

City residents are receiving aid this week for damage suffered during Tropical Storm Irene — but that relief effort turned into its own near-disaster on Monday.

A line of over 600 people waited at the city welfare office at 194 Bassett St. on Tuesday to receive aid from FEMA’s Disaster Support Nutritional Assistance Program, which supports those who were affected by Tropical Storm Irene. Since the program began last Wednesday, crowds of over 1,000 have waited in line at the New Haven Department of Social Services, often for more than 10 hours, for disaster benefit cards worth upward of $200. And according to the New Haven Police Department, Monday’s long lines led the crowd to become restless.

Rachel Gilmore

“Anxious they could loose their place in line, some of those waiting refused to allow cars access to driveways, blocked streets, and momentarily blocked the path of school buses,” NHPD spokesman David Hartman said in a release.

In the wake of the disorder, the NHPD increased its presence in the area, with officers arriving at 4 a.m. On Tuesday, officers were ready.

“Yesterday we had several arrests for breach of peace and disorderly conduct, basically people fed up being in line,” said Sgt. Chris Rubino as he stood on duty at the scene. Rubino said no incidents like those on Monday had occurred as of 2 p.m., likely because of the increased police presence.

While order was maintained, the process remained highly inefficient, according to seven people interviewed on site.

“We’ve been here since 1:30 a.m., but hey, the economy’s bad and we need the help,” said Ed Turner, a New Haven resident who was still waiting for aid with his girlfriend at 2 p.m.

The line on Tuesday stretched a quarter of a mile from 194 Basset Road around the the block to Corey Road, but Rubino said that the lines on Monday and Friday were longer.

To receive the benefits, residents stood in line to enter the social services office in Newhallville, north of downtown New Haven. Once inside, they filled out applications for aid, and upon passing a short interview, received their benefit cards.

Charlotte Jenkins, who had been in line since 4 a.m., said that if the social services office had let residents fill out the applications while in line, it may have shortened the wait.

Faced with hours in line, some applicants tried to cut ahead of others, leading to arguments, said a local hot dog vendor who sold food to the crowd.

Paulina Kidd, a Yale-New Haven Hospital employee, said the wait was especially problematic for residents with day jobs.

“I think it’s a good thing that they’re doing this, but in the meantime we’re suffering,” said Kidd, who began waiting with her daughter at 4:30 a.m. “People have jobs, kids — they can’t spend this much time.”

Those in line told the News they learned about the benefits from sources ranging from Facebook news feeds to local gospel station Radio Amor AM690.

People already receiving aid from the Support Nutritional Assistance Program in the form of food stamps were not eligible to receive D-SNAP benefits.

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