By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Jay's girlfriend, a short, emaciated woman with blotched skin from too many hours living homeless under the sun, walks up to the clerk at a small South Beach market and loudly drops six quarts of beer on the counter. She gives the market's clerk a big smile, her head flopping from side to side in the manner of an incurable alcoholic. Her fist is full of cash and she is babbling happy talk. Only a few minutes earlier, she left the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services office a few blocks away screaming at Jay that she needed a drink and he had better cash some food stamps to pay for it.
Buying and selling food stamps for cash is illegal under state and federal law. But that is no problem for Jay and the band of other homeless people who pursue an active trade in cash-for-food stamps at their business address: the HRS office at Sixth Street and Alton Road in Miami Beach. (Florida's HRS is responsible for determining eligibility and administering the federal food stamp program.)
They arrive promptly at 7:00 a.m. every day, when the office opens, to use the bathrooms and set up shop under a shade tree in the adjacent alley. Then they service their clients by taking turns sitting inside the HRS office -- near a sign warning that food- stamp trafficking is a state crime -- and soliciting recipients as they leave the stamp windows, in full view of HRS staff and a security guard. They will shepherd willing recipients to nearby stores that pay 80 percent of the stamps' face value. The stores then share the difference with the runners.
Providing cash to buy alcohol, cigarettes, and other nonfood items that encourage addictions rather than basic nutrition is exactly what the food-stamp program is designed to prevent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture emphasizes this principle by regularly releasing a list of stores caught buying stamps for cash. Working with state and local authorities, USDA agents investigate stores in the cash-for-stamps trade, and Dade County leads the state in food stores kicked out of the stamp program. Since last year, 48 Dade markets have received the ultimate penalty, which can seriously cut into a small store's profits. Only one of those markets was in Miami Beach, where business is still booming at the HRS office, which pours out close to one million dollars in food stamps every month. Stamp traffickers divert enough of that into cash to support their alcohol and cocaine habits.
Marlyn T. Smith, the Miami office program administrator, says she is aware of the alcohol and drug problems of the homeless commune in the alley; some of the homeless, she says, have even been known to smoke crack in the HRS bathrooms. But the idea that her office is headquarters for the business that pays for their addictions comes as a complete surprise. She had never heard of the trafficking until confronted by a reporter.
Smith's policy toward the homeless has been one of concern rather than police action. "It's a very difficult situation with the homeless out there," she admits. "I don't want to be unkind, I don't want to harass them, but they're a problem. My concern has always been more about drug use and abuse [than food-stamp trafficking]." The HRS office staff has attempted to maintain a workable peace with the homeless, trying to keep them from bothering the public without provoking them. According to Smith, some staffers have even brought them clothes and other gifts.
But soliciting the sale of food stamps right there in her office? "I guess we are just naive, unfortunately," Smith concedes.
Such naivete is hard to maintain after spending even one day watching business as usual at the food-stamp office. A three-day surveillance of the HRS office and nearby stores by New Times revealed a steady stream of customers who turned from the stamp windows to do business with the runners, or met them outside in the alley. "Selling your stamps today, Joe?" asked one red-faced woman with a gray ponytail, the apparent leader of the runners, as an elderly man shuffled away from a stamp window. When he agreed, the woman called a runner to take him to a nearby store.
HRS program administrator Smith says she has never had a food stamp recipient complain about the solicitations despite incessant complaints on every other subject, from rude HRS employees to the stinginess of stamp allotments. But it may be the futility of complaining about the obvious that holds back stamp recipients like Steven DeFreze, who cannot believe HRS officials haven't seen the trafficking for themselves. "This makes it hard for guys like me to get any assistance," DeFreze says. "HRS is so afraid of being screwed [by illegitimate food-stamp claims] all the time, but then this is going on right in their lobby."
DeFreze, 32 years old and recently laid off from security work at a South Beach restaurant, has a wife and small son to support. He made three trips to the food-stamp office in the last few weeks to fill out paperwork before his stamps were issued. Each time he was solicited to sell his stamps in the HRS office and again outside in the alley. On his last visit, when he actually received his stamps, DeFreze, at New Times's request, accepted a runner's offer and went as far as the store before breaking off the deal.