The line of people inside the tidy welfare office in Exposition Park is no different from the line of vendors who sit outside.
Inside, the poor and desolate wait for a check from the government. Outside, half a dozen vendors who line the front walkway with booths of trinkets and candies wait eagerly to take a piece of that check.
Along Vermont Avenue, where there are few businesses amid rows of well-kept, plain apartment buildings, vendors sell inexpensive goods atop fold-away tables to customers from the welfare office.
They sit with their backs to the empty Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum parking lot, hoping to make enough money each morning to avoid becoming part of those dreary lines inside.
Yet even the vendors are feeling the trickle-down effect of federal and state welfare reforms. As benefits shrink, so does business.
"There are fewer sales when the people who ask for help are not receiving it," says Carlo Tenorio in Spanish. "We live off of the people who get help."
Tenorio says he has worked in downtown's garment district on and off for several years but prefers to have his own small business. He used to set up his toy-filled table in el callejon, a three-block outdoor flea market of retail goods at the center of the garment district, but found less competition here. However, since welfare cutbacks began to take effect, recipients have become more careful with their money. On a good day Tenorio makes about $15.
The first significant drop in his business coincided with last month's cutoff of federal food stamps to legal immigrants--nearly 100,000 of them in Los Angeles County, many of them Latinos who feel comfortable doing business with Spanish-speaking sidewalk vendors.
Norma Soto's best customers used to be the children who dragged their mothers by their hands to her table filled with rainbow plastic Slinkys, barrettes, terry-cloth elastic hair bands, red beaded bracelets, toy trucks, blond dolls and hard candies. A few plastic diaper bags hang on the tree that shades her.
Nowadays, Soto says, she can't even sell a rainbow Slinky for $1. On some days she makes a total of $20. On others, not even $3.
"If you don't sell anything in the morning, then you won't sell anything," says Soto as she sits rearranging the beaded bracelets in neat rows.
For seven years, she has filled cloth bags with goods and has boarded buses to set up her table along this street. Sometimes she put the table up at a welfare office on Grand Avenue. That was where she met Berta Sanchez, another vendor who sells primarily baby clothes. The two women have sat side by side ever since, moving to Vermont after police chased them away from Grand.
Some inside the welfare office envy the vendors and wish they too had jobs. Socorro Ruiz, a legal immigrant, says high blood pressure has affected her ability to work as a housekeeper for the wealthy in Santa Monica. Without food stamps, she says, her 12-year-old son, Elario Sandoval, has not been eating well and seems weak.
Ruiz thinks he has developed bronchitis. Today she says she is waiting to ask someone if she can receive medical aid. Elario sits next to his mother and rests his head on her shoulder. He looks away when she begins to cry.
For Cassandra Calloway, a 33-year-old single mother who has collected Aid to Families With Dependent Children checks for six years, a job would mean financial independence as well as a way to avoid a confusing system.
Like the vendors outside the office, she displays her goods: a neatly organized portfolio filled with six certificates that she's earned from a regional job-training center. The classes she took in computers and secretarial services were meant to get her off welfare.
Calloway says her 5-year-old daughter Caitlyn's birthday is close to Christmastime; each year, she says, she tries to save up for the two events. "I scramble to get her set up for the year," she says.
Calloway has registered with two job agencies, she says, but is still waiting for interviews.
On this unusually warm October day, when the Coliseum's electronic sign reads 93 degrees by noon, the vendors already look as tired and hopeless as the people inside, the ones who are still waiting for their scheduled 9:30 a.m. appointment at 11.
Carmela Gonzalez says the hot weather used to attract more customers to her fruit stand. As young mothers with strollers pass by, she peels the skins off mangoes and cantaloupes, honeydews and coconuts, and cuts them into pieces. She packs the cold fruit into square plastic containers and lines them up on her table. The colors of the fruit match the multihued pastel umbrella that she stands under.
"Hi, lady," says Gonzalez to a young woman with long spiral curls, dressed in denim, who stops by the stand. The young woman is sipping on a can of soda through a straw and points carefully to a container of fruit.
"Two dollars," says Gonzalez.
"That's too much," murmurs the young woman, who then walks away. For one year, Gonzalez has set up her stand on Vermont in direct competition with a shiny, well-stocked food truck. Despite diminishing sales, she says she will continue to sell fruit.
"I don't know how to do anything else," she says.
Inside the office, the line of people waiting to speak with welfare officers is shrinking, and there are more empty plastic seats. By 3 p.m., when the office closes, the vendors will pack their goods and board buses.
They will be back the next day at 7 a.m., peddling their goods to mothers who need a few extra clothes for their children, or hopefully a toy that will keep their toddlers occupied for the few hours that they have to sit or wait in line inside.
Says one: "We're here as long as the foot traffic is here."