As an AmeriCorps VISTA, living on a modest stipend could be difficult. However, you can make it a bit easier by applying for food stamp benefits. Once you are sworn in as a VISTA and start your first day of work, I recommend that you start the food stamp application process right away, because once the Texas Health and Human Services Commission receives your application, they are legally allowed 30 days to process and complete your application—and that’s a long time when you only earn $939 a month minus taxes! You will be trained in applying for food stamp benefits within your first week or two of working. However, it is good to be prepared with all the knowledge and materials needed to apply.
Even if you do not have your pay stubs to print off from the AmeriCorps website during your first two weeks of work (at least that’s how it was for us last year), you should contact the AmeriCorps VISTA Texas state office by phone 512-391-2940 or fax at 512-391-7021 and request a letter verifying the stipend that you will be receiving bi-weekly. This letter should serve as a way of proving your “income or wages” for the food stamp application. You should qualify for food stamp benefits easily because our stipend payments are not wages under federal or state unemployment compensation laws (45 USC 5055)—so our income is treated virtually as $0. Assuming you don’t have a car under your name, and/or you have less than $5,000 in your savings account and assets, you should qualify and be granted $200.00 a month.
Here are some of the things you will need in order to fill out the application without pulling your hair:
- Proof of income – pay stubs or letter from VISTA state office verifying stipend
- Service Letter -Letter verifying your service as an AmeriCorps VISTA (found on My AmeriCorps website).
- Identity Card – current driver’s license or Department of Public Safety ID card.
- Bank accounts – most current statement for all accounts.
- Child support – documents verifying the amount you get or pay.
- Social Security number, Supplemental Security Income, pension benefits, Veteran benefits, Workers compensation, and unemployment – award letter or pay stubs.
- Housing costs – recent checks, check stubs, or statement from the mortgage bank, landlord, or your roommate that you pay in case you sub-lease.
- Utility bills – Most recent utility bills showing your name and current address or a letter from the roommate you pay that verifies your paying them for utilities.
- Medical Costs – proof of costs you have now and costs you expect to have in the future. You can send bills, receipts, or statements from health care providers.
- Dependent care expenses – cancelled checks or receipts or a signed statement from the person you pay.
- Health Insurance – copy the front and back of the insurance card or policy.
- Proof of child living with you – a signed statement from your landlord or non-relative neighbor that includes his or her name, address, and phone number.
- Child vaccines.
Make sure that you fax in your completed application on the day that you sign and date the application. Esther, who guided us through the food stamp application process from Catholic Charities Central Texas here in Austin, advised us not to sign and date the application unless we were confident that we were sending it in that same day. It took me a few days to fill it out because of all the information I had to gather.
Once your application is received by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, they will send you a letter to your current address confirming that it was received. It will also indicate a time and date of your interview. Most likely, you will fill out your original application requesting to have a phone interview because an in-person interview would conflict with work. Make sure you put your Austin address on the application so that it is passed on to the correct office for processing. The first time I filled it out, I put my Houston address for the “home address” and my Austin address for the “mailing address.” Because of this, the application was filtered to the local Health and Human Services office in Houston—and it was a nightmare trying to figure out where it went, not to mention the time it took for me to get in contact them.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will call you from a number you most likely will not recognize a few days before your scheduled interview to identify you as the person applying for food stamp benefits. It’s important that you answer this so that you do not delay the process any further as it already takes a while!
Once approved for Food Stamp benefits, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission should grant you whatever your monthly allowance is (typically $200. WOW!) as well as reimburse you for the days that your application was processing. Remember, the sooner you get all your information together, the sooner you can receive your benefits!
Disclaimer—with all application processes that you will go through with in life, you should always go to the website of the program you are applying to in order to get accurate and up-to-date information. In addition, your VISTA leaders and the Texas AmeriCorps VISTA state office are always there to help you out with any questions.