Los Angeles County spent $390,000 last year to send a million pieces of mail, essentially to itself.
Much of it was then sorted by workers and, after awhile, sent to the shredder.
County supervisors this week called it a cumbersome and costly exercise in futility, born of a federal requirement that the county send letters to the 1 million or so residents who receive food stamps.
Because tens of thousands of those recipients are homeless, however, there are few places to send their mail. So information about benefits, appointments and other notices are sent to 50,000 to 70,000 homeless people in care of one of about 30 regional offices of the county Department of Public Social Services.
Homeless recipients can then show up and get their mail, but officials said many never do. Depending on the district office, officials said 60% to 90% of the mail can go unclaimed.
"Clients who are homeless and need to use a county office address to receive case-related mail, federal rules require that we send it via U.S. mail, which results in our mailing it to ourselves," said social services Acting Director Sheryl L. Spiller.
"The county," Spiller said, "needs the flexibility to implement a more efficient, cost-effective and convenient delivery system."
One alternative officials suggested was that social services create an e-mail account for each participant so they can view it on a personal computer or at district offices and spare a worker from having to sort through piles of paper. Recipients could also print anything they have to take with them.
Supervisors agreed to instruct county workers to develop a strategy on how to overcome the federal regulation and any other legislation blocking their way to a more efficient process.
Homeless advocates worried that an electronic mail system could invade someone's privacy or pose other problems for a diverse community with myriad needs.
"It appears to be a one-size-fits-all approach and this isn't really a population where you can use that approach," said Christine Khalili-Borna, a staff attorney with the law firm Public Counsel, which assists the homeless for free.
She said the system is flawed and supports changing it. Lines at district offices can be so long that people sometimes have to wait hours to get their mail and some letters are simply lost, she said.
"Often we see clients who say it's part of their routine to go once a week or twice a week and haven't received critical mail that should have been there," Khalili-Borna said.
Social services officials said they would work with Public Counsel and others before creating a detailed plan to recommend changes.
Mai Lee, director of government relations at the Midnight Mission downtown said many homeless people are able to use the mailing address of shelters they frequent.
She questioned whether switching from paper was practical: "Do people who are homeless have access to electronic-type media?"