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New--but Improved? : The Poor Say Welfare 'Super Office' Has Its Drawbacks

January 10, 1991|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine months after the controversial close of three welfare offices in Long Beach and one in San Pedro, disagreement continues over whether a replacement "super office" near Compton adequately serves poor people from southeast Los Angeles County and the South Bay.

Activists for the poor staged protests last April, saying the "super office" in Rancho Dominguez would hopelessly isolate many people from the bureaucracy that is their link to subsistence benefits such as food stamps, housing vouchers, Medi-Cal, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and General Relief. They predicted the trip to the new county Department of Public Social Services office would be too lengthy or expensive for many.

Administrators at the massive office--housed in a defunct auto parts manufacturing plant--say the new operation has proved those predictions wrong. They also say the Santa Fe Avenue building, just south of the Artesia (91) Freeway near Compton College, offers more room for employees and clients, cleaner waiting areas and more efficient service.

It costs $100,000 more a year to operate than the four offices it replaced, but welfare officials say the added expense is more than offset by the improved atmosphere. And the office serves more clients than the four defunct ones, they say.

The poor people who receive government aid through the office and their advocates generally are not as glowing in their assessments. Although they agree that the office is bigger and cleaner than its predecessors, they say it can still take a full day or more to complete the daunting paperwork that will qualify them for benefits. And many clients continue to complain that the office is too far from their homes.

Owners of the office's neighboring industrial firms also have their gripes--they say the welfare office has brought congestion and petty crimes to a once serene area.

What county workers and the poor can agree on is that the new Rancho Dominguez office--part of a consolidation effort that has reduced the number of General Relief offices from 30 to 15 in recent years--serves a tremendous number of people.

The office provides government benefits for more than 26,000 people, 19,000 of whom receive funds on behalf of at least one child. More than 1,700 clients visit the office on an average day, said Lynn McCune, district director for the Department of Public Social Services.

The demand has been particularly heavy for General Relief--the benefit of last resort for poor people who do not qualify for state unemployment insurance, AFDC or other programs. Single men and women receive up to $312 a month from "G.R.," as they call it, and are also eligible for food stamps and housing vouchers.

More than 3,400 new applicants, half of them homeless, come through the door each month seeking the subsistence payments, officials say. That is 50% more than the number of new cases processed by the defunct offices, said Daryl E. Grenier, director of General Relief programs. Grenier said the unexpected surge in cases might be caused by tremendous "word of mouth" about the office among the impoverished and homeless on the streets in the county's south end.

At Rancho Dominguez, county officials have separated General Relief recipients into one office and AFDC clients into another.

Earlier this week, as at the start of any month, the General Relief office was filled to overflowing with poor people waiting for checks or trying to iron out problems concerning their payments. More than 200 plastic chairs, tightly packed in rows, were all occupied. Dozens of other people leaned on the walls or waited at glass intake windows that line an entire wall. It was cool in the staff offices at the back of the building, but the crush of humanity in the waiting area conquered the air-conditioning and raised the temperature at least 15 degrees.

Many of the homeless said they could not raise the bus fare to get here, so they walked to the office. They had piled their bedrolls beside the metal detector at the front door. The air was stale and heavy with the respiration of hundreds of people.

A knot of heavily tattooed men sat on one side of the waiting area. "When guys get out of prison," said a guard, nodding in their direction, "this is usually the first place their parole agent sends them."

Considering the crush, the low rumble of conversation seemed subdued. Occasionally, the calm was pierced as a clerk plaintively called the name of a client who had failed to respond to repeated paging.

Don, 39, said the main hardship for him is the long walk that he must make to the super office from Carson, where he has been living on the street since he lost a maintenance job three months ago. He said he awoke at 4:30 a.m. and, missing the police patrols that sometimes question him along the way, arrived in Rancho Dominguez at 6:30 a.m., half an hour before the office opened.

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