How to Get EBT Food Stamps When Homeless

A woman shows her EBT groceries at a checkout counter.

If you’ve become homeless and need to apply for EBT (aka food stamps), then the following information should help you get started. EBT means Electronic Benefits Transfer, which is the way that government funds or resources are transferred on to a debit card (which most people refer to as an “EBT card”), so you can use those funds at regular retail locations such as grocery stores and even some restaurants and fast food chains in some cities.

In order to get the card with money on it so that you can use it to buy food, you should probably first know what the terms are so you know exactly what you need to apply for.

The actual program that provides food on EBT cards to homeless and low-income people is called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and this the same thing as the food coupons that people used to use which are commonly referred to as food stamps.

While this program is offered by the federal government, you still need to apply for it through a SNAP office in your state or county, which is normally part of a county’s Social Services Department. You can apply online in most states or by physically visiting one of these offices in all states.

The only states that don’t currently offer an option to apply online are Alaska, Hawaii, and Nebraska, so you’ll have to visit a local SNAP office if you live in one of these states in order to apply.

Because most people still refer to SNAP as “food stamps” or “EBT”, I’ll sometimes refer to all three of these terms synonymously as “EBT” in some parts of this guide, that way it’s easier for everyone to understand.


How to Apply Online

If you want to make things easier on yourself, I recommend applying online if you have access to a computer or a local library that has computers. The whole process of filling out information and submitting it took me about 20 minutes when I was living in Los Angeles, and took about an hour when I once applied in-person at an office in San Jose.

So I feel it’s usually much faster to simply go online and apply through the application website. Each state has it’s own website for applying, so you’ll need to find which website you should go to by visiting the directory I’ve listed at the bottom of this guide.


Applying in Person

If you do visit a local office to apply, the process can differ between different offices so I can’t tell you how the exact process will go, but somebody at your local office will be able to direct you on what to do once you get there.

The process can vary and while it shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes to fill out the application, you may need to wait a while just to submit as I did when I once applied in person at a local office of mine.

You’ll normally be given a SNAP application form, but the way the form is set up and the number of pages in the application can vary depending on the state. Forms are almost always offered in both English and Spanish, and there’s also a number of other languages offered as well depending on your area and what ethnicities are more common there.

For a directory of SNAP/EBT offices in your particular state, again, you should visit the resource link at the bottom section of this guide. Most SNAP offices are essentially the same as the Social Services Department and most caseworkers who work on SNAP cases work on cases for other benefits as well.


Applying by Phone

If you don’t have access to a computer and don’t have the time or means of transportation to make it to a local EBT office, you can still apply by phone in all 50 states. You can also apply by phone if you live in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Washington D.C. or Guam.

Each state and U.S. territory has an EBT hotline phone number for you to call and the most current up to date list of the phone numbers for each area can be found on the official USDA.gov website in the SNAP section.

However, it still may be best to do the application process by internet or in person if you have access, because this this can save you a bit of time and hassle if you don’t like sitting on the phone for long periods of time.


Eligibility

Whether you’re eligible for EBT benefits or not depends on many factors and the same goes for how much money you will actually have available for you to use each month. There’s many different factors involved, so it’s best to simply apply and answer all questions on the application honestly to determine if you’re eligible.

However, the single most important factor is how much actual income you have. Someone who makes a lot of money may not qualify or may not get as much money as someone who has much less income. Also, families who live together or are homeless together tend to get more money each month than individuals for obvious reasons.

Interview
The interview process can differ with each person and with each state or county. Normally, you’ll need to visit the actual SNAP office (which is usually the Social Services Department in your county) to do an in-person interview with a case worker there, although some countries or locations may offer an over the phone interview instead.

When you speak with your case worker, they will ask you questions to assess whether your circumstances qualify for SNAP/EBT. Some people I’ve spoken to have stated they were only asked a few questions, while others state that they were questioned for over 30 minutes. So it all really depends on your situation and what you claimed or didn’t claim on your application.

In my case, I’ve applied for EBT twice in my life in two different counties in California. At one interview, my case worker wanted to see my bank account and to print out a screenshot of how much money I had in my account, as well as any printouts of income that I had.

I was making a little under $500 per month but was homeless and seeking EBT so that I could get on my feet faster. She wanted to see screenshots of my income online and how much savings I had at the time, which I showed her. Because of my income, I only qualified for about $33 per month in food stamps.

The other time I applied was a few years later when I was struggling again and had no income at all. This was in a completely different city and county and my interview with my case worker was a bit more personal. She wasn’t interested in seeing my bank account or anything else related to my finances.

She just looked at what I put on my application and then asked me why I needed benefits and asked me more personal questions about my situation, such as where I was living, how I ended up in the situation I was in, and what my plans were to get back on my feet.

In this case, I was approved for close to $200 per month in benefits, which lasted a few months until I was able to get a job and quickly got back on my feet. So the interview process and what is asked of you can greatly vary, depending on who you get and where you’re located.


FAQ: Do You Need a Permanent Address? Answer: No

The case workers and people reviewing EBT applications understand that many people applying are homeless, so you do not need a permanent address in order to qualify for EBT benefits.

Since the application forms themselves can vary between states, it’s up to them as to whether you need to fill out the address section of the form or not. If you’re homeless, then you may want to leave that section blank.

But you should still establish a mailing address so you can receive any mail they send regarding your benefits in the future. Some counties will want to send monthly account statements or updates by mail. Other than a mailing address, just about every EBT office will not require you to have a physical address in order to apply.


Approval

The time it takes for each person to be approved for EBT benefits can vary because it all depends on your situation and your income. The government states that an approval or denial for SNAP should be made in less than 30 calendar days, but many people will be approved or denied much quicker than this.

The average time it seems to take most people to receive a decision back is within about 2 weeks, but again, this can greatly vary and you can specify on the application how you’d like to be notified of the decision. It’s important that you fill everything out on the application as accurately as possible so that there won’t be any clerical reasons for you to be denied or the need for you to have to re-apply again if you make a mistake.


Emergency Benefits

For those who need to have their applications reviewed and processed more quickly, you can try applying for emergency SNAP benefits. When you’re filling out the application online or with paper forms, there should be a section that asks you if you’d like to apply for emergency or expedited benefits, or their should at least be a screener that asks you certain questions to see if you qualify.

The general federal guidelines and criteria state that you have to meet at least one of the three requirements they’ve outlined in order to be eligible for expedited service. The first is that you have to have less income or savings in your bank account than the amount you will have to pay for your monthly rent. If you don’t meet that requirement, the second one you’d have to meet is that the monthly income you have coming in is less than the amount of $150, and you’d also have to have less money in you bank account than $100. If you don’t meet this requirement, the last requirement is that you’re a migrant worker and have less than $100 in savings in your bank account.

If you feel you meet any of those covered requirements, then you should apply for emergency SNAP benefits and you will normally receive a decision back within about seven days.

As I’ve mentioned already, I’ve personally applied for SNAP twice in my life, and it took about two weeks for me to be approved the first time as I had not applied for emergency service due to not meeting one of the mentioned requirements. The second time, I did choose to apply for emergency service because I met the first requirement.

I was given an interview within about a day and was approved within about four days, at which point I received funds on my card. Just keep in mind that every county operates differently so your process may be quicker or longer depending on where you live and how you apply.


Official Federal SNAP/EBT Website for more information:

https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap