Raleigh, N.C. — It's just days before Thanksgiving and Bianca Williams' cupboard is pretty bare.
A jar of peanut butter, canned goods and a few packages of pasta occupied the lower shelves of her kitchen cabinet Tuesday, almost two months after she was recertified for food stamps through the state's new NC FAST system. But since September, Williams has been waiting for those benefits to pay out.
Earlier this year, after NC FAST hard-launched in Wake County, that process took Williams and her two children more than four months.
"You're looking left and right, left and right just to get by each night, not knowing if you're going to feed your kids or not," Williams said.
For Williams, relief came in the form of a Thanksgiving dinner donation from the Catholic Parish Outreach food pantry. And after WRAL News contacted Wake County with questions about Williams' case Tuesday, she said social services officials processed her benefits Wednesday morning.
But it may be too late to save Williams’ home. After she lost everything in a fire earlier this year, her family scraped together some cash to help her get an apartment. But while her food stamps have been held up, she’s had to use whatever cash she could find for groceries instead of rent.
“I have 10 days to come up with the money just to stay here, just to get by, just until I find another job, or me and my children will be out in the street,” she said.
Williams says other people she knows are facing the same problem, and data from the Wake County Human Services Division backs that up. In Wake County alone this month, about 500 families already on food stamps have been waiting anywhere from 15 days to three months for their benefits. That's down significantly from the September backlog, which the county said stood at about 4,500 cases.
Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott attributes that backlog to a number of factors, like increased demand and some staff turnover. But she says another reason is the learning curve and technical issues involved with the rollout of NC FAST.
"We do have some cases, however, that are hung up in the system, and we are addressing those with the state and trying to get a resolution to each one," Scott said. "Each time we become aware of someone whose benefits have gotten hung up in the system, you know we're working as hard as we can to get those resolved."
Across North Carolina, according to state Social Services Director Wayne Black, counties are significantly reducing large backlogs that mounted after problems with the system in July and August. Black said NC FAST now "is working quite well," and is delivering $200 million in benefits to 800,000 households a month.
To confront challenges with the new system and the increased caseload, which almost doubled from 2008 to 2012, Scott says Wake County hired more temporary workers and has staff working overtime. They've also made improvements to their call center to help people asking about their cases.
But Scott acknowledged the high call volume has made it difficult for people to speak to their case managers – an issue Williams ran into during her regular calls to social services.
"This voicemail is full. You transfer us to their supervisor, that voicemail is full," Williams said.
While Wake County processes its backlog, they've worked with food pantries and the United Way of the Greater Triangle to distribute $35,000 in food support to families facing delays. They're also urging Wake County customers whose benefits are late by 60 days or more to call (919)212-7302 for help.
And although she says the process so far has "been bumpy," Scott said she's hopeful things will get better.
"We're seeing some improvement and we're hopeful that that will continue, because we're very upset when we're not caught up with getting people their benefits on time," Scott said. "That's our goal – is to get people their benefits on time."