Suffolk County Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre said the number of people coming into shelters is beginning to increase since the statewide eviction moratorium expired in January. Other social services programs have also seen a rise in need. Credit: James Carbone

Demand for food aid and temporary cash assistance in Nassau and Suffolk counties swelled after the end of federal and state pandemic aid that kept millions of Americans out of poverty, according to county data and interviews with social services officials.

Use of the county programs had declined significantly last spring and summer — in some instances to historic lows — when big federal and state relief programs were in effect, according to county data obtained by Newsday.

But applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides electronic benefits for food purchases, and Temporary Assistance, which provides cash payments and subsidies for rent and utilities, increased significantly after expanded unemployment benefits ended Sept. 5.

By then, many residents also had used up federal stimulus payments, officials said.

Nassau County received 11,788 applications for SNAP and Temporary Assistance from September through December 2021 — a 40% increase from the May through August period, when 8,385 were received.

Suffolk received 18,370 applications for the two programs from September through December, compared with 12,292 between May and August , county data show.

Nassau Social Services Commissioner Nancy Nunziata told Newsday federal and state relief programs, particularly extended unemployment benefits, "really did help people maintain their standard of living."

Nunziata continued: "That went away, and that brought people right back to where they were at the beginning — struggling to get by."

Theresa Regnante, president and CEO of United Way of Long Island, told Newsday: "You're really starting to see a lot of people stand in line again" for services.

Regnante said the number of people "in a dire situation" was "sobering."

She called it, "just extraordinary really that [there] is that much need in this community — even for me, who's worked 35 years in social services."

Nunziata, Regnante and other experts said the recent jump in applications for SNAP and Temporary Assistance compared with sharply lower levels last summer highlights both the success of federal and state pandemic aid programs in supporting low-income county residents — and the difficulties many are facing now that those programs have ended.

Social services experts also are expressing concern about what will happen later this year, given the lingering impact of COVID-19 on people's health, finances and ability to work.

"I would expect that the need is going to continue for some time," said Cheryl Keshner, a community advocate with the Empire Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 quickly drove up demand for social services as thousands of local residents lost jobs, according to data from both counties.

In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Nassau and Suffolk counties received a total of 3,091 SNAP applications.

In April, a month or so into the pandemic, the counties received 8,963 applications for SNAP, county data shows.

Federal and state programs aimed at blunting the economic impact of COVID-19 kicked off not long after the pandemic started.

On March 20, 2020, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered a 90-day moratorium on evictions that subsequently was extended repeatedly.

Five days later, Congress passed the $2.2 trillion U.S. CARES Act, which established a federal eviction moratorium, increased unemployment benefits by about $600 a week and provided stimulus checks of $1,200 for individuals with incomes of $99,000 or less, plus $500 per child in the household.

Such benefits helped the United States attain a Supplemental Poverty Measure of 9.1% in 2020, the lowest since reporting began, according to the Census Bureau.

The measurement takes into account cash income, plus noncash government benefits such as housing assistance.

Stimulus checks alone lifted an estimated 11.7 million Americans out of poverty, while expanded unemployment benefits kept another 5.5 million above the federal poverty level, according to the Census Bureau.

The $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021, renewed or extended some CARES Act programs, and provided another round of stimulus checks.

The legislation also increased the federal child tax credit from $2,000 per child to between $3,000 and $3,600.

In New York State, about 1.6 million households received a total of $3.4 billion in increased SNAP benefits, Anthony Farmer, spokesman for the state Office of Temporary Assistance and Disabilities, told Newsday.

SNAP is 100% funded by the federal government.

County officials said they were reimbursed by the state and federal governments for most spending on Temporary Assistance during the pandemic.

Nassau did spend $15 million in county funds on the program in 2021, while Suffolk spent more than $39 million, according to state and county data.

As federal and state pandemic aid became more widely available, and more people returned to work last spring, the number of Nassau and Suffolk residents seeking county social services declined significantly, according to county data and interviews with officials.

The number of applications for SNAP dropped by 23% in Nassau County — to 14,009 from 18,219 — and 18% in Suffolk — to 20,689 from 25,304 — between January and September 2021, compared with the same period in 2020, social service data shows.

But as 2021 neared an end, Nassau and Suffolk social services officials were reporting significant increases in applications for SNAP and Temporary Assistance.

Shortly after increased unemployment benefits ended in September, for instance, the Nassau Social Services Department began receiving as many as 500 SNAP applications a day, Nunziata told Newsday.

The department received 1,639 applications in all of August last year, and 1,339 in July.

"We're really off the charts and we're seeing that now again — a pretty sharp rise in SNAP applications," Nunziata said.

Officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties also said they're getting more applications for emergency housing in homeless shelters, particularly since a state eviction moratorium expired Jan. 15.

The moratorium protected tenants who had lost jobs or experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic from losing their homes if they couldn't pay rent.

Frances Pierre, Suffolk County Social Services Commissioner, told county legislators at a hearing on Jan. 25 that officials closed about 40 of more than 100 shelters in Suffolk in 2020 and 2021 during the evictions moratorium for lack of demand.

Pierre testified the department is moving to reopen three shelters in order to gauge necessary capacity.

The number of people coming into shelters is "starting to rise slowly because of the [eviction] moratorium" expiration, Pierre told lawmakers.

Nonetheless, Pierre said demand for emergency housing since the end of the moratorium hadn't been "as much as we expected" because of programs such as a $2.6 million county initiative to prevent homelessness.

Nassau officials said as of Dec. 15, the county had 1,135 shelter clients, 31% more than in September.

Nunziata, the Nassau social services commissioner, told Newsday she expected to not see the full impact of the end of the eviction moratorium until this summer, given how long the eviction process can take.

"We're all bracing ourselves — not only us, [but] the nonprofit community," Nunziata said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who took office in August after Cuomo's resignation, has allocated $2.1 billion for rent relief in her 2022-23 budget, Hochul spokesman Jim Urso told Newsday.

Hochul also proposed in her State of the State address an increase in the amount of income Temporary Assistance recipients can have and still remain eligible for social service benefits.

Nassau and Suffolk officials warned that social services applicants still face obstacles.

A major barrier, they said, is the fact that eligibility requirements are based on the federal poverty level, $26,500 for a family of four in 2021, which is less than many low-income families in the New York region earn.

Some 302,000 households in Nassau and Suffolk counties — 31% of all households on Long Island — earned too much to qualify for social services, but less than "enough to afford a bare-bones household budget," the United Way of Long Island reported in 2020.

"Because the poverty guidelines are set so low, lots of people don't qualify," for benefits, Nunziata said.

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