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Floridians will get reform reprieve

About 84,000 elderly and disabled Floridians who thought they would lose their food stamps as soon as next month have been granted a reprieve.

Last year's landmark welfare reform law terminates all public assistance for legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens. But the federal government is allowing benefits for some recipients to continue until August.

Florida becomes the third state, behind New York and California, to take advantage of the federal money.

The welfare reform law "is going to be devastating," said Lisa Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Children and Families.

"We are going to be taking away the basic supports for legal immigrants, especially the elderly. This will, at least, extend the time before they have to face that situation."

About 3,302 of those affected by the federal changes live in Hillsborough and Manatee counties. Another 1,060 live in Pinellas and Pasco, Hutcheson said.

Most _ about 70 percent _ live in Dade County, and many of them are Cuban refugees.

The average payment for a legal immigrant on food stamps is $76, but a man or woman who also receives cash benefits might get as little as $15 or $19 per month in stamps.

"For people who are eating on a combination of $12 or $27 in food stamps, plus food give-aways, nutrition centers, community centers and free lunch programs, they had to put together everything in order to subsist," said Valory Greenfield, a staff attorney with Florida Legal Services in Miami.

"If you take away $10 or $20 in food stamps, you are taking away 50 percent of their food budget."

Congress' intent was to allow non-citizen, legal immigrants one year to seek citizenship or make other plans before federal benefits were terminated. But thousands of immigrants already had been notified their food stamps would cease by April 1, said Ariela Rodriguez, director of family services for the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers in Miami.

"They were told, "you are not getting one penny more in food stamps,' " Rodriguez said. "We have had a great deal of pain listening to the stories of people coming in here crying. They simply cannot take it."

In fact, demand for free meals at the nutrition centers has increased by 25 percent in the last few months, said Josefina Carbonell, the center's president. The nutrition centers serve 3,200 meals each day and deliver 1,900 to people's homes.

"They're lining up at 4 o'clock in the morning for their meal tickets," Carbonell said. "We turn people away every day."

One of the center's clients is a 98-year-old woman who is deaf. Anna Ballasteros was receiving $484 in Supplemental Security Income from the federal government and $15 in food stamps. The food stamps already had been discontinued, and the cash assistance is to stop in August.

"This lady outlived her son," Rodriguez said. "She has nobody."

Rabbi Herbert Panitch, director of the Jewish Family Service of Greater Miami's Refugee Resettlement Program, said many Russian immigrants in contact with his program have applied for citizenship, which would enable them to continue receiving aid.

"But it can be nine to 14 months before you hear anything, which means in the interim you get cut off," Panitch said.

"It's a tragic situation."