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An Introduction to the Food Stamp Program

Here are tips on how to help your clients who are homeless access Food Stamp benefits.


> Most of Your Clients who are Homeless are Eligible
> Your Clients Need to Show Proof of Homelessness
> Avoid Delays with a Correct Application
> Identification Requirements Vary
> Expedited Food Benefits are Available
> Food Pantries Can Help Clients with an Immediate Need for Food
> Be an Authorized Representative
> Help Your Clients with the Application
> Develop a Relationship with the Local Food Stamp Office
> Your Clients Have Rights

For more detailed information on the Food Stamp Program, scroll down.

Most of Your Clients who are Homeless are Eligible
In general, most of your clients who are homeless are eligible for food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) oversees the Food Stamp Program. FNS has an online pre-screening tool to help determine if a client is eligible for food stamps. The online pre-screening tool can be accessed at:

Your Clients Need to Show Proof of Homelessness
Under the Food Stamp Program rules, an individual is considered homeless if he/she does not have a regular nighttime residence or his/her primary nighttime residence is a temporary accommodation in:

  • A supervised shelter
  • A halfway house
  • The residence of another person for up to three months
  • A place not designed for regular sleeping, such as a hallway, bus station, or lobby

How a state agency verifies and documents your client's living situation is up to the state agency. The state must make allowances for people who are homeless when verifying residency. Your client who is homeless must be able to verify his/her living situation if it is questioned. Normally, a written or oral statement from a homeless shelter or a statement from someone who can verify where your client is staying would be sufficient.

Avoid Delays with a Correct Application
Errors, omissions, or inaccurate information on the application are common reasons for benefits being delayed. You should be familiar enough with food stamp guidelines to help your clients complete application forms accurately and to help them provide any necessary documents. Food stamps are not provided to fugitive felons and violators of probation or parole. Most state agencies do not provide benefits to felons convicted of a drug-related crime committed after August 22, 1996. For more information on state policies, see the State Options Report on the FNS Web site,

Identification Requirements Vary
Most states accept a variety of IDs as valid. In general, any document that reasonably establishes identity must be accepted. For example, case managers in Chicago, Illinois utilize library cards. No specific form, such as a birth certificate, may be required.

Expedited Food Benefits are Available
People who have very low income and resources may be able to get benefits sooner. This fast process is called "expedited service." Expedited services can get clients food stamps within seven days if they have less than $150/month in income and no more than $100 in resources, or shelter costs in excess of their combined income and resources. The one proof your clients need to provide to get the first month's benefits is proof of their identity. If they have no physical identification, they can get benefits without identification as long as you vouch for them. Remember, expedited food stamps can take up to seven days to receive, but this is much shorter than the normal 30-day process.

Food Pantries Can Help Clients with an Immediate Need for Food
Your local food pantries can provide food to your clients who need food immediately and while your clients wait for expedited service for food stamps.

Be An Authorized Representative
Once your client is on the Food Stamp Program, lack of contact with the food stamp office may be the biggest reason he/she might lose this benefit. To solve this problem, you can ask your client to be his/her authorized representative. This means that all correspondence related to food stamps will come to you. This is particularly important when it is time for recertification. It may be possible to have your agency serve as the authorized representative (check with your local program) which is helpful if you relocate or if your caseload is reassigned to another case manager.

Help your Clients with the Application
Even though people who are homeless are generally eligible for food stamps, you should do what you can to ease the process such as helping your client fill out the application. Some barriers that could prevent your client from getting benefits include:

  • Long application forms. Even though many states are streamlining their application process, many state food stamp applications can be lengthy. Application forms can be long because states offer households an opportunity to apply for all assistance programs (such as Medicaid and Public Assistance Welfare) at the same time they're applying for food stamps. Families can actually benefit from this process if they need cash and medical assistance in addition to food assistance. But if a homeless person only wants to apply for food stamps, he/she only needs to answer the questions on food stamp eligibility.
  • Difficulty understanding or reading the application form. Parts of some applications can be difficult to read and may be written at reading levels your clients may not understand.
  • Application forms contain perjury (truth) statements that clients may find intimidating. You can help reassure your clients by making sure they complete the form as accurately as possible. They cannot be punished for making an honest mistake.
  • Frustration over the application process. Your clients may feel frustrated by application questions that do not apply to their situation. You can help your clients navigate the application form by pointing out questions that relate to benefits they do not want or just do not apply in their case.

Develop a Relationship with the Local Food Stamp Office
Food stamp offices across the country suggest that getting to know a local contact can make a difference. If you are not familiar with your local food stamp office, call them today to set up a meeting.

Your Clients Have Rights
All clients who apply for food stamps have the right to:

  • Receive an application when they ask for it
  • Turn in their application the same day they receive it
  • Receive their food stamps (or be notified that they are not eligible for the program) within 30 days after submitting their application
  • Receive food stamps within seven days if they are eligible for expedited service
  • Have a fair hearing (review of the decision) if they disagree with any action taken on their case

> More information on Food Stamps:

Benefits Your Client May Receive
What Makes Your Client Eligible
What Your Client Needs to Apply
If Your Client is an Immigrant
Contact Information
Food Stamp Program Q & A
Food Stamp Program Fact Sheet