By 8:15 a.m. Thursday a long queue has already formed outside the Food Stamp Center at 227 Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn. The flow of people through its door starts at 8:30 a.m. and does not stop until closing time at 5 p.m. Staff members estimate that nearly 1,000 Brooklyn residents come here daily to apply for or recertify their food subsidies.
The recession and unemployment are a good part of the reason for the long lines. There’s been a 61 percent increase nationwide in people using Food Stamps compared to 2007, according to the Food and Research Action Center. Employees at the Brooklyn Center say they’ve noticed a growth in their numbers over the past few years. While much of their offered assistance goes to help those who are unable to find work, there are increasing numbers of people whose jobs are so low paying they need the food subsidies.
One of the men waiting in line today is Omar, a 30-year-old Brooklyn transplant from Minnesota who moved to the City in 2005. Wearing a stylish brown jacket, Omar might look out of place at an assistance program. When you find out that he graduated from a competitive music program at New School University with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, his presence in line seems even stranger.
As Omar explains, finding music-related work has been difficult since he graduated from his program last May. He’s a jazz trumpet-player who works full-time on his music, playing at different venues all around the city. For a while last year, he had a glamorous full-time gig, playing five nights a week at the Standard Hotel with his own group. But when that job came to an end, work opportunities in music have been sporadic. Omar is in line today because he “just needs a little something to hold [him] over.”
He never expected he would need public assistance after pouring so much money into his education. On top of rent, daily living expenses, phone and utility bills, Omar shoulders approximately $50,000 in student loans.
According to government guidelines, a single person such as Omar must make no more than $1,174 a month to qualify for food stamp benefits. He now receives food stamps, along with 80 dollars every two weeks and a few hundred dollars towards rent every month. This is his second week coming to the center.
In the midst of trying circumstances, Omar remains upbeat about his future. He’s certain that the assistance program is only a short-term solution. “It’s not like I’m not trying to work. I’m still hustling. I’m still doing what I’m supposed to be doing, but it’s just until things pick up. I don’t plan on being on this for long.”
Yet many in line at the center have been showing up for years. There’s Edward, 50, who is unemployed and no longer seeking work. The born-and-bred Brooklynite worked as a custodian in the World Trade Center for over a decade until the towers were attacked on 9/11. Edward was on site at the time — he heard the first plane hit and then witnessed the second one crash into the other tower.
The destruction of the towers put Edward out of a job. Without an income, he couldn’t afford his Brooklyn Heights apartment and eventually started living in the streets. In the decade since 9/11, Edward has not gone back to work. He claims gainful employment is out of the question. “I may look alright, but I’m not fit to work. I have back pains and I can’t be doing work anymore.” He also cites the deep emotional trauma of witnessing 9/11, which took the lives of many of his friends.
Nowadays, he survives with a disability payment from a 9/11 fund, food stamps and welfare. At night, he alternates between sleeping at the Port Authority or on trains. He’s tried shelters and subway platforms before but stopped after his things were repeatedly stolen. Although the streets have taken a toll on him — he’s missing three upper molars on the left side of his mouth — he says he’s content with what he’s got. “I’m 50. What kind of work would I do? I want to enjoy my life.”
Homeless people often frequent the center, many of whom also struggle with mental illness. Such is the case with Angie. The 51- year-old has held several jobs in grocery markets, but she doesn’t usually hold onto the jobs for long. “They don’t like me because I’m slow and so they fire me,” she said.
For more on the unemployment crisis visit our Unemployed in Brooklyn page.