Hurry Up And Wait

Those trying to tap into social services must learn to endure frequent trips and long delays.

April 11, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

On a cold morning at 6:45, Vanessa Jones stands alone under the canopy of the Park Circle social services center on Reisterstown Road, her cigarette providing the only light in a relentless rain.

The office doesn't open until 8 a.m. But Jones is here, more than an hour early, so that she'll have a chance of getting out by 10:30 - maybe.

So begins a daily dance at social services offices around the city. In these days of welfare reform, of boasts that the rolls are down and employment is high, a Muscovite reality still prevails in these places, where the poor seek help purchasing food, covering medical care and supporting their kids.

The laws and the caseworkers expect the clients to be working, or at least looking for a job. The training programs they must attend emphasize the importance of keeping to a schedule. But to get the help to assist them on the road to self-sufficiency, there is this fact of life: The Wait.

There's usually a wait at the beginning of the day, jockeying for the "walk-in," unscheduled spots to see a worker. But there's often a wait with appointments, too - an hour or two past the scheduled time, longer than at most doctors' offices.

There's even a wait just to drop off papers and get a receipt. That can take half an hour.

"They only take so many people a day," Jones says. "I figure if I want to be one of them, I better come early."

Jones is here to apply for medical assistance on behalf of her 61-year-old mother. Her mother would have come herself, but Jones knew the drill - it wouldn't be good for someone of that age to stand for an hour in the cold before the office opens.

"And that," she says, "is what you have to do."

Alexandria Butler-Cahill's appointment at the Park Circle office is for 11 a.m. So she tries to show up around 10, though with two buses to take and two babies in tow, she doesn't make it until about 10:30.

She knows she will wait at least an hour. So if she gets there early, she reasons, they might just call her close to the time of her appointment. If she doesn't, she will be waiting into the afternoon with 5-month-old Jordan and 19-month-old Justice.

Butler-Cahill announces her early arrival, then sits down to fill out a yellow form, on which she lists the names of her six children. The family of eight had been receiving $318 in food stamps every month. But Butler-Cahill's caseworker thinks her husband, Marc Cahill, makes too much money as a janitor for Johns Hopkins Hospital for them to qualify for help any longer. Butler-Cahill has brought his pay stubs, hoping to demonstrate otherwise.

Time stretches on. The only entertainment: Bad girls and boys strutting on the "Ricki Lake Show,"telling their romantic partners to "step up or step off" if the sex doesn't get better. There's a desk at one side of the room, with a chair and a cheery bouquet of fake flowers. It's labeled "Customer Service." And it is empty.

A woman in a white turban and coat has stopped in just to drop off papers. She has been waiting 25 minutes. "Oh, this makes no (expletive) sense," she fumes.

The woman looks outside to see a car backing up and runs toward the door. "My hack is gonna leave ... Is he pulling off?"

She dashes out to stop him.

"Is Ms. Cahill here?"

Butler-Cahill lurches hopefully forward. "Yes?"

"Your worker," says the receptionist, "she's running late. She had to get a case transferred."

"Oh," says Butler-Cahill quietly.

It is 11:35.

She settles back into her chair. Jordan looks up and starts a prolonged whimper that can mean only one thing. Fortunately, Butler-Cahill came prepared. She pulls out a huge blanket decorated with Winnie the Pooh, drapes it over both of them and begins to nurse, right there in the waiting room.

The workers have told her before: Don't bring the kids. But where could she leave them?

At 12:05, they call her again. Butler-Cahill and her children walk down a long corridor of mostly empty chairs to the desk of her worker, who briefly apologizes for being late. "I had a couple applications this morning."

It takes another half an hour for the appointment to be complete. The worker looks over the pay stubs, asking for one that was missing. She tells Butler-Cahill to be in touch about that. Then she'll be in touch.

By the time Butler-Cahill and her children leave, it is 12:40 p.m.

It's not supposed to be this way.

The federal government, concerned about the falling numbers of people using food stamps, recently made it easier for states to relax the rules about how often most people have to show they're still eligible for help. The purpose was to encourage food-stamp participation, which had dropped 29 percent nationwide between 1996 and 2000.

Under those rules, most recipients can wait as long as a year before going through the process again, by filling out a short form every six months to update their information.

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