Don's trek began at 4:30 a.m., starting from the Carson park where he has lived for three months since he lost a maintenance job.
It was dark and raining when he set out for the county welfare office near Compton. Police officers sometimes had stopped and questioned him on his previous trips, Don, 39, said. But on this day he was unimpeded, so the walk took only two hours.
Don, who did not give his last name, was inside the welfare office when it opened at 7 a.m. By midmorning, he had already completed the reams of paperwork needed to qualify for the $312 monthly subsistence payment known as General Relief. But he was still waiting to have his case approved. Past experience taught him that he was not likely to be out the door before 3 p.m.
"What's the use," said Don, looking up from "Think and Grow Rich," the paperback he was reading. "I was one of the first people in here and they haven't gotten to me. . . . It's tension, a lot of tension."
Advocates for the poor and homeless predicted such problems last April, when the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services closed three welfare offices in Long Beach and one in San Pedro to open the new "super-office" in the unincorporated community of Rancho Dominguez.
Activists warned that the office 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 and General Relief. They said poor people from the South Bay and southeast Los Angeles County would find the trip to the welfare office too lengthy or too expensive.
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 Rancho Dominguez office--on Santa Fe Avenue just south of the 91 (Artesia) Freeway--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 are generally not as glowing in their assessments.
Although they agree that the office is bigger and cleaner than its predecessors, they say it still can 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 industrial neighbors also have their gripes; they say the office has brought congestion and petty crimes to a once serene area.
What county workers and the poor can agree on is that the 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 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 subsistance 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 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 overflowing with people waiting for checks or trying to iron out problems concerning their payments. More than 200 plastic chairs, 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.