Homeless Persons’ Rights under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program

Homeless persons have all the same rights under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program as persons who are housed. They also have some additional rights due to the fact that they are homeless. In addition, certain provisions in SNAP/Food Stamp law that apply to all persons often particularly affect homeless people.

When is someone considered homeless?

You are considered “homeless” under the SNAP/Food Stamp Program if you:
(1) have no fixed, regular place you sleep at night or;
(2) the place you sleep at night is one of the following:

  • a shelter (which includes a welfare hotel or congregate shelter)
  • a half-way house
  • the home of someone else if you are there less than 90 days
  • a place where people do not usually sleep such as a doorway, a lobby, a bus station, a hallway, or a subway. 7 CFR 271.2 (definition of “homeless individual”)

Homeless persons are eligible for SNAP/Food Stamps even if they live on the streets and do not have a mailing address. Homeless people cannot be denied SNAP/Food Stamps simply because they lack a permanent address. 7 CFR 273.3(a).

Homeless people are also eligible for SNAP/Food Stamps even if they live in a homeless shelter which provides them with meals. Homeless people cannot be denied SNAP/Food Stamps only because they are living in a homeless shelter which serves meals.

You do not need a place to cook or store food to receive SNAP/Food Stamps. 7 CFR 273.3(a). You cannot be denied SNAP/Food Stamps solely because you lack a kitchen or other cooking facility.

Where can homeless people use SNAP/Food Stamps?

Homeless persons have the option of using their SNAP/Food Stamps at places other than the grocery store or farmers market. Homeless persons can pay for meals at some soup kitchens and homeless shelters with SNAP/Food Stamps. 7 CFR 278.2(b). These soup kitchens and shelters must be authorized by FNS to accept SNAP/Food Stamps. They cannot force you to use your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for food at the shelter. They can only request that you voluntarily use your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for meals and cannot ask you to pay more than the average cost of meals at the shelter. 7 CFR 278.2(b). In addition, if the soup kitchen or homeless shelter gives other clients the option of eating free or making a monetary donation, you must be given the option of eating free, making a monetary donation, or using your SNAP/Food Stamps to pay for the food. 7 CFR 278.2(b).

Homeless persons may use their SNAP/Food Stamps at certain restaurants. Restaurants can contract with the state to serve meals to homeless persons at reduced prices in exchange for SNAP/Food Stamps. 7 CFR 271.2 (definition of “eligible foods”) If you are homeless and would like to be able to use your SNAP/Food Stamps to purchase meals at restaurants, you should tell your SNAP/Food Stamp caseworker. You will be given a specially-marked ID card which will allow you to buy meals at restaurants. 7 CFR 274.10(a)(4)(iii).

How can homeless people verify their identity and residence?

The SNAP/Food Stamp caseworker is required to verify your identity. 7 CFR 273.2(f). There are many ways, however, that you may verify your identity. A photo ID is only one way. You should not be denied SNAP/Food Stamps simply because you do not have a photo ID. To prove who you are, you can use such things as a work or school ID, an ID for health benefits, an ID from another social services program such as TANF, wage stubs, a birth certificate, or a voter registration card. The SNAP/Food Stamp caseworker can also verify your identity by calling a “collateral contact” who can confirm you who are. Shelter workers and employers are examples of possible collateral contacts. If you have no paper documentation of who you are, you should ask the SNAP/Food Stamp caseworker to call a collateral contact. 7 CFR 273.2(f)(1)(C)(vii).

Homeless households are not required to verify where they live. If you are living in a shelter, however, it may be helpful to bring a letter to the SNAP/Food Stamp office which is written by a shelter employee and says that you are living in the shelter.

What happens if a homeless person spends money on shelter?

Homeless people may spend money on shelter by doing such things as paying to stay with a friend, or paying to stay in a motel. If you can document those shelter costs, you may be able to deduct them from your gross income for purposes of determining net monthly income. If you are homeless and have spent money on shelter, but have no receipts or other documentation to prove how much you spent, you still may be able to receive a deduction in some states. Certain states have chosen to use what is called the “homeless shelter deduction” which allows people who are homeless, but who have spent money on shelter, to deduct a flat $143 from their gross income. Even if your state uses the homeless shelter deduction, you may not receive the deduction if you have extremely low shelter costs. If you can get more SNAP/Food Stamp benefits by using the regular shelter deduction instead of the homeless shelter deduction, you should use the regular deduction. If your state does not use the homeless shelter deduction, you may want to advocate that your state elect to use it.

Do homeless people get any special help with receiving their benefits?

SNAP/Food Stamp offices are required to establish procedures that serve homeless persons. 7 CFR 273.2(a). If you are homeless, the SNAP/Food Stamp office is required to give you assistance in receiving your SNAP/Food Stamp benefits. 7 CFR 274.2(a). For example, the SNAP/Food Stamp office may assist you by helping you to find an authorized representative or mailing your benefits to a shelter that you are staying at. The SNAP/Food Stamp office cannot make you fill out report forms each month if you are homeless. 7 CFR 273.21(b)(1)(ii).

What are the rights of homeless youth?

If you are a young person who is living in a shelter or entirely alone, you should be able to apply for SNAP/Food Stamps on your own. Your parent’s income should not be used in calculating whether you are eligible for SNAP/Food Stamps. If you are living in a shelter, you may want to bring a letter written by a caseworker at the shelter which says that you are living there.