City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) joined U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) and advocates for hunger issues at a press conference in Lower Manhattan Sunday, where Weiner said that more than 600,000 New Yorkers eligible for food stamps are not enrolled in the federal program. According to a 2005 survey released last month by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, this includes about 327,000 Queens residents, or 10.5 percent of the borough's population. The lawmakers blamed a cumbersome enrollment process for the lag in registration and, among other things, called for a repeal of state requirement that food stamp recipients be fingerprinted to avoid fraud.The failure to attract more New Yorkers to the food stamps program, Gioia said, is costing the city between $500 million and $1.2 billion in federal funding it would be receiving if all eligible New Yorkers were enrolled. "It's unconscionable," said Gioia, who blamed the registration failure on the "bureaucratic red tape" he said holds up the enrollment process. "You have to be a Harvard lawyer to cut through the red tape. It's preventing people from getting what they need."But Bob McHugh, spokesman for the city's Human Resources Administration, which administers the food stamps program, said significant strides have been made in registering eligible New Yorkers for food stamps - a direct result, he said, of attempts by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to simplify the process. "The city has taken a lot of steps to make the process easier," said McHugh, who contended that Gioia, Weiner and other critics of the Bloomberg administration's efforts were taking an overly pessimistic view of the situation. "They seem to view the glass as being half empty and we view the glass as being more than half full."McHugh said that as of November, just over 1 million New Yorkers were receiving food stamps, an increase of 200,000 since November 2000. The city, he said, has extended weeknight hours and created Saturday hours at enrollment offices and reduced the length of the application, which is now available in an estimated eight languages. In response to criticism of the fingerprinting requirement, McHugh pointed out that 500,000 food stamp recipients already have to be fingerprinted as a condition of receiving welfare. The city, he said, has also applied for and received about 170,000 finger printing waivers.McHugh, however, also acknowledged that the mayor's office is seeking to overturn three laws passed by the City Council in August - over Bloomberg's veto - that are designed to increase food stamp registration. The laws, two of which were authored by Gioia, would allow eligible New Yorkers to apply for food stamps online, by fax and at food kitchens and pantries. According to McHugh the city's Law Department is examining the possibility of overturning the laws largely because much of what the laws would accomplish was already being done by the HRA. He also said Bloomberg views the laws as an attempt by the Council to usurp his power to administer social services."Our position is that progress is being made and people are being helped," said McHugh, who added that he had "no idea" how Weiner and Gioia had determined that 600,000 eligible New Yorkers were not registered for food stamps.Weiner came in second in the Democratic primary for mayor in the fall.Gioia, in fact, put the number between 600,000 and 900,000 New Yorkers and said much more has to be done to eradicate hunger in the city. "To go from terrible to simply bad is not good enough," Gioia said.. "It's pretty clear the city has to do a better job."Reach reporter Craig Giammona by e-mail at news@times
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