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Unhoused in Tennessee

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

To get SNAP in Tennessee, the state assumes that one has a phone, has access to computers, an email address, and a home address. If someone does not have these things (for examples individuals struggling with homelessness) they face bigger challenges when accessing the SNAP program, and the state is not always willing to accommodate these hardships. As the Tennessee Department of Human Service (TDHS) moves to update their online system and improve their technology some of the poorest Tennesseans are being left behind.

A Memphis mom and her 12-year-old son who were unhoused struggled for over six months to access SNAP. When someone is faced with homelessness and seeks support, safety net programs should work to alleviate the hardship. But the Memphis mom and her son faced barriers to the SNAP application process and were unable to access SNAP for herself and her 12-year-old son for over six months.

Before the pandemic, she lived in Tennessee and moved with her son to Texas to work as an insurance adjuster. While successful in that role, she (like many) was laid off during the pandemic. She struggled to find work and moved with her son back to Memphis, TN in the Fall of 2022. During this time, she was without a job and could not afford housing, so she and her son lived in their car. Their situation grew more dire this past winter, February of 2023, when their car was repossessed.

She applied for SNAP in November of 2022, shortly after moving back to Tennessee. However, she faced barriers to accessing a program and a state agency system that inconveniently assumes families have a home address to receive important documents and a phone to receive critical calls from the state agency. If someone doesn’t have these things, the state has advanced their application technology and systems in a way that is leaving behind people who are houseless. Because the Memphis mom was unhoused, she did not have a permanent address for DHS to send her paperwork to. Additionally, the state requires a telephone interview before someone is approved for SNAP. In the case of this Memphis mom, she did not have a phone and the SNAP agency did not consider or accommodate this hardship. She was not able to do a phone interview without a phone. She tried to visit the SNAP office to explain her situation, but when she arrived, the staff refused to see her in person, and instead directed her to call or use other online options. Once she was able to communicate to a live person that she and her son were houseless, the SNAP caseworker asked her to prove that she was homeless.

The Memphis mom eventually sought help from a community organization and the Tennessee Justice Center. She was ultimately approved for SNAP, but only after facing significant challenges that should not exist for people who are trying to get food assistance. Many people who are houseless or face other barriers to SNAP don’t know that a caseworker’s decision to deny them is wrong, nor do they understand that they can challenge decisions like this or that there is support from organizations like TJC to assist in addressing barriers and overturning wrongful SNAP denials.

Most importantly, she was kept from accessing SNAP for herself and her son because DHS repeatedly asked her to provide “proof of residency” in order to prove that she was homeless. She was eventually able to have a local community organization write a Letter of Understanding on her behalf, but it would be March of 2023, a full six months after applying, that she would be able to receive SNAP benefits.

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