He had told me his name was Tomas.* He said he wanted more information about food stamps. I got his name down, but the rest was hard. He started repeating his name, address, and phone number in a quick succession. His voice was gravelly and his words were slurred. I tried my best, but I couldn’t understand him at all. Later, I found out about his head injury.
I was at a food pantry helping people sign up for SNAP benefits like I’ve done so many times in the past year. I’ve spoken to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. I’ve helped folks fill out the form in Spanish even though my Spanish is very poor. I’ve gone over the application process sitting on park benches, in the rain, in the hot summer sun, in the winter with snow falling, and, sometimes, in a nice air conditioned office.
I couldn’t recall ever having this much difficulty understanding someone. His repetition was not helping. Finally, a man we’ll call Jack stepped in.
“Slow down, Tomas,” Jack said. He gently put his arm across Tomas’ shoulders. “He can’t understand you. Say it slowly.” Tomas repeated himself, this time a lot slower, and calmer. We got through the SNAP application bit by bit with Jack serving as an interpreter of sorts.
“Tomas is homeless like me,” Jack explained. “Except, he lives in his brother’s camper right now.”
“Can he receive mail at his brother’s house?” I asked. “Income Support will need an address to send the EBT card if he’s accepted into the program.”
“Yeah, his brother will take care of it.”
I thanked Jack for his help. Jack explained some of Tomas’ story. There was a bad car crash, medications for constant pain, and the loss of some cognitive function.
Contrary to the misinformation out there, people experiencing homelessness can receive SNAP benefits. New Mexico Human Services does need an address where the applicant can receive mail. Many shelters and soup kitchens will allow clients to use their address and phone number. Human Services will generally expedite cases when the applicant states that they are experiencing homelessness.
The SNAP program can be very helpful for someone with no place to live. But, it has its limitations. In the state of New Mexico, you cannot purchase ‘hot foods’ with a SNAP EBT card. $20 worth of groceries does not help much if you have no place to cook them.
Later, as I was packing up to leave, I heard someone singing in the food pantry line. I recognized the voice. Tomas was singing “Las Mañanitas” for a couple of his friends. He was surprisingly good.
I wondered how he sounded before the accident. I thought about how much different his day to day life must have been.
*Names have been changed out of respect for privacy.
Jason Riggs is the SNAP Outreach Coordinator at Roadrunner Food Bank.
If you are interested in becoming a SNAP Outreach volunteer, please contact Jason.