COLUMBUS — The homeless man had made it through the application process, barely, but now he was stuck. His food-assistance money seemed to have taken a digital detour and he didn't know what to do.
"They loaded his benefits onto his old card," said Solomon Dean, a deputy director at the Open Shelter in downtown Columbus.
To sort things out, the man needed to provide a previous address — the one he used four years ago, when he last applied for aid through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP. "He's been homeless," Dean explained, using his own cellphone for the call that stretched past the half-hour mark. "He doesn't know his last address."
Desperate to get the food stamps, he started guessing.
The woman on the other end of the line indicated the session was over. "She said, 'You only get two tries,' " Dean said, his voice rising last week as he recounted the experience. "I said, 'What do you mean he only gets two tries?' "
Five months ago, the state transferred some 1 million food- and cash-assistance cases to a processing system known as Ohio Benefits, one that has been handling Medicaid cases for the past few years. Developing a single, mammoth system for the major public-benefits programs was part of a long-term plan by the state to streamline and modernize the way Ohioans apply for and receive aid.
But the years-long project has come with some snags and glitches, advocates for the poor say, along with structural changes that make it difficult for them to assist people who can't manage the online processes and follow-up calls on their own.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks, the Center for Community Solutions and others are calling on the new administration of Gov. Mike DeWine to make it a priority to address problems with the new system, which is expected to cost $539 million once all components are complete.
"What we know for certain is that income-eligible residents in need of food are being denied SNAP because they are missing eligibility interviews through no fault of their own," said Kristin Warzocha, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
Her agency has been documenting problems and found that in August and September, 47 percent of their income-eligible clients who were denied benefits had letters mailed to an old address instead of the current one entered into the new application. She said the rate was 57 percent in October and in November, 20 percent.
John Rainey, a 57-year-old Cleveland resident with a disability, recently turned to the food bank for help restoring his benefits. "They were cut off due to the fact that information was sent to the wrong address," he said.
The Cleveland food bank typically has assisted with about 25,000 public-aid applications each year, but its ability to shepherd the process changed under the new state system. Accenture is the lead contractor for the new system, which does not include an online portal for the food bank and hundreds of nonprofit and faith-based organizations to submit SNAP applications via Ohio Benefit Bank software, as they had done for years.
Since 2006, more than 180,000 food-assistance applications had been handled through the Ohio Benefit Bank.
Bret Crow, an Ohio Department of Job and Family Services spokesman, said in an email that the state thought the portal would duplicate efforts and costs. Nonprofit workers and volunteers still can assist people, he said; they just can't manage and send in applications.
"They closed the eGateway and they're refusing to accept faxed applications," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. "In the real world of technology platforms, you'd think you'd want to make them as broad and user-friendly as possible, not narrow them."
Phone wait times under the new system also can be exceedingly long, advocates and applicants said. "I know for a fact it can be 90, 120 minutes," said Kam McKenzie, SNAP program manager at the Freestore Food Bank in Cincinnati. "Before, that would happen every blue moon. Now, it's kind of common. And most of our clients are using government phones, so they have limited minutes."
Ray Ingram II, 28, told staff members at the Open Shelter in Columbus that he hadn't been able to get through for his phone interview to obtain SNAP benefits. "I waited four hours," Ingram said last week, explaining that he had to use a land-line phone at a relative's house. "The next time, I waited two. It's over, I guess. I won't be getting anything."
The state is aware of some "hiccups" in the transition and has worked to make fixes, Crow said. The problem with correspondence going to the wrong address has been corrected, he said, and the system soon will be able to generate the public reports that counties, nonprofit organizations and others, including members of the media, had used for years to document trends and caseloads.
According to the latest year-to-year data the state could provide, the number of SNAP recipients declined from October 2017 to October 2018 by about 5.5 percent, to 1,359,793 Ohioans, a dip that appears consistent with recent shifts, Crow said. In Franklin County, SNAP cases dropped by 10 percent during that time, down to 149,470 people.
Public Assistance Monthly Statistics reports (known as PAMS) haven't been posted to the state job and family services website since June.
"There are things we need to know; we have to be able to identify trends," said Joel Potts, who heads the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors' Association. "I don't think those who were developing the system understood the importance of reports to managing the system."
Still, Potts said he thinks the new system will prove to be a significant improvement.
So does John Fisher, director of the Licking County Department of Job and Family Services. His county was among five chosen as pilots, moving to the new system in November 2017. The state's largest counties — Franklin, Cuyahoga and Hamilton — were not part of the early rollout.
"What I feel is the greatest obstacle is not the computer system; it's the underfunding of the actual structure," Fisher said, noting that his agency has far less operating money for SNAP assistance now than it did a decade ago.
Teresa Jaskowiak, who has a 5-year-old son and is facing eviction in the South Side neighborhood of Columbus, didn't know anything about possible glitches until it was too late to get the help she needed before Christmas. "I got a letter in the mail for an interview on the 18th, and it wasn't even posted until the 20th," she said. "And it didn't come till Dec. 26."