Vanessa Fraise-Frelow was angry Sunday morning.
The mother of six young children had gotten up early to get her welfare check from Los Angeles County officials with the intention of getting back to her kids within an hour. Instead, the 36-year-old found a long and painfully slow line at a Pacoima check-cashing outlet distributing checks for the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program.
"I had to get up at the crack of dawn to get in line, so I don't understand why they're doing this," said Fraise-Frelow, who receives $297 per month from the AFDC program. "All they're going to do is start confusion. What do they want to do, start a riot?"
Though there were no major problems during the first day of a new program that requires AFDC recipients to pick up their checks at one of 44 retail facilities scattered throughout the county, there were frayed nerves, long lines and at least one outlet that never opened.
Los Angeles County--the first in the state to stop mailing AFDC checks--has required about 490,000 recipients of other assistance such as food stamps and general relief to pick up welfare benefits in person for more than three years.
But Sunday was the first day that about 350,000 AFDC recipients--most of whom also receive food stamps--were required to show up in person to get the checks earmarked for helping them provide for their children.
County Department of Public Social Service officials say they made the switch to avoid the problems of lost checks and robberies of mail carriers.
"This ensures that the check is there regardless of whether someone moves or if the check is somehow lost," said Lisa Nunez, the division chief for the county's AFDC program. "The other reason we're doing this is [to stop] violence against postal workers."
At the Community Check Cashing Center in Pacoima, while women like Fraise-Frelow negotiated long early morning lines with their children, husbands and boyfriends congregated outside or waited in the doughnut shop next door.
"I don't like it," said Shawna Cummings, a 26-year-old mother of five children from Arleta who was at the center to pick up a check for $855.
Cummings had rousted herself out of bed and secured a place in line by 7:45 a.m.
"If you need money, you can't get it until you come to an outlet," she said.
But at the Gold X Money Center in Panorama City, where the lines were shorter than other places despite problems with computers, Kimberly Moore, who lives nearby, was pleased.
"This was easy," said Moore, 26, the mother of two young children, who received a check for $565. "No problem."
Some of the longest lines were at outlets in Inglewood, where people lined up around the block at a Community Check Cashing Center on Crenshaw Boulevard before it opened at 7 a.m., and at outlets in Long Beach and Compton, which did not have sufficient staff during the early morning hours. By afternoon, things had calmed down. "As far as we're concerned, it went well," Nunez said.
When county officials announced the program in March, advocates for the poor complained that 44 outlets were not nearly enough to avoid long lines and transportation problems for people without cars.
They pointed out that similar programs in Chicago and New York have as many as 500 distribution sites.
In response, Los Angeles County increased the total number of service windows at outlets from 200 to 300 and established plans to add to the number of approved sites in upcoming months.
Most of the locations are check cashing shops, though welfare officials said other types of retail outlets will also participate.
The most confusion centered on the result of the new program's staggered check distribution system, which is intended to reduce crowding.
Recipients will get their checks sometime during the first 10 days of the month depending on the number on their identification cards. Cards that have a series of numbers ending with a 1 are eligible to get checks on the first day of the month, while those ending with a 0 must wait until the 10th.
Many people who expected to pick up checks Sunday were turned away. Some worried about how they would pay their rent.
Lakieysha Williams, 23, was in line before 8:30 a.m. at Community Check Cashing Center to see if she could get her AFDC check.
One of two county workers posted at each site to help recipients told the mother of two that to receive her $600 AFDC check, she would have to come back June 9.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Williams said. "The rent's due. I don't know what the landlord will say."