Sleepy and unkempt, Dennis Ogletree lingers over an early morning breakfast at an Oceanside homeless center as his girlfriend stockpiles free doughnuts for the uncertain day to come.
These handouts, day jobs and a share of Deborah Malena’s $291-a-month welfare check are what Ogletree lives on as he awaits a government check of the same amount. Home is a hooch near the San Luis Rey river. His food supply is breakfasts at Brother Benno’s homeless center and whatever else he scrounges up. Ogletree’s wait for a welfare payment may be considerable: He most recently applied for “general relief” Aug. 12, according to papers he carries. Welfare workers set his appointment for Sept. 30, fully 49 days later.
“If you look at it realistically, it’s insane,” said Ogletree. “General relief is emergency (money). When you’re homeless, I don’t think it gets any more (urgent) than that. How can you tell someone that’s homeless ‘come back in a month and a half?’ ”
Delays in awarding general relief, the assistance payment of last resort for adults without children, have lengthened to six weeks or more for some San Diego County applicants, raising the risks of homelessness and hunger for a population already perched precariously on the margin of society, advocates for the poor charge.
With their caseloads at record levels, overburdened welfare workers are unable to meet the demand for assistance in this most basic safety net program, according to the county Department of Social Services.
“The politics are that these are the sacrificial lambs,” said Tania Bowman, a paralegal with the Oceanside Legal Aid office. “They are the least sympathetic group. They’re men, they’re not women. They don’t have children.”
The delays have reached such proportions that Legal Aid lawyers are collecting affidavits from general relief applicants in preparation for a possible lawsuit against the county. The signed testimonials describe delays ranging from 41 to 55 days for the appointments that are required before an applicant is approved to receive the $291 general relief grant.
The Department of Social Services has responded by gaining an exemption from the county’s hiring freeze to train 40 new welfare staffers, some of whom will be assigned to the general relief program next month.
Baenziger declined to estimate the average wait for approval of general relief payments, saying that the length varies considerably around the county. She also declined to offer the range of delays at the five county offices where applications are accepted.
Baenziger claimed, however, that delays approaching 50 days are “the exception, rather than the rule.” The so-called “vulnerable homeless,” who are ill or have no hope of temporary shelter with friends or relatives, are seen more quickly, she said, but declined to provide a time estimate.
Baenziger acknowledged, however, that the department’s response time has slowed considerably from a year ago.
A separate set of federally funded welfare workers provides Medi-Cal and AFDC assistance, for which there are many more applicants. General relief payments and the staff that administers the program are paid entirely by the county budget, which is $30.6 million in the red for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The county estimates that it will pay out $24.3 million in general relief in fiscal 1991-92--up from $3 million 10 years earlier. The county will spend another $4.5 million to administer the program.
The 6,451 people now on general relief represent a 13.6% increase from the 5,676 who received payments last August. The 3,229 people who applied for the grants last month is up 218 from the year before, an increase of 7.2%. The figure represents a continuation of a trend that began in 1988, when the July total of 3,016 applications was a substantial increase from the year before.
Meanwhile, the number of workers rose from 82 in 1988 to 130 now, an increase of 58%.
Baenziger said that, even though staffing is increasing faster than the number of applications, newly hired workers are still learning eligibility standards and take longer to screen applications for assistance. In addition, applicants’ circumstances are more complex and require more extensive review, she said.
The recipients of general relief are the county’s truly down-and-out: To qualify, they must have less than $50 in the bank and assets of less than $1,500, including their cars. (Homes are exempt from the asset total, as long as recipients continue to live in them.) They must have exhausted other benefits such as unemployment payments.
They are the homeless, the deinstitutionalized mentally ill, the long-term unemployed. They are often doubled up with friends or relatives, underfed, or both. For these people, even a meager $291 monthly--and the promptness with which it arrives--can be critical, advocates say.
“If it’s a question of $291 or nothing, it absolutely makes a difference,” said Melinda Bird, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles, which has filed a number of lawsuits in recent years over delays in assistance payments.
“It’s being able to share housing, or be in housing part of the month,” said Anson Levitan, an attorney with the San Diego Legal Aid Society.
General relief recipients and their advocates say that a regulatory gauntlet also contributes to delays. The application for assistance totals 10 pages. Applications are accepted at only five locations throughout the county. In North County, the only intake center is in Oceanside, where applicants from as far away as Escondido and Ramona are received.
Traveling that distance is no small task for a homeless person who may not have the money for mass transit, and even more difficult for a mentally ill person or one who is otherwise dysfunctional. Keeping appointments and supplying the correct paperwork also can prove daunting for such people and contribute to delays in receiving assistance, advocates concede.
When long waits for assistance loom, workers assign applicants to much earlier “standby appointments” that allow them to await a cancellation in an office throughout a designated day. Although the system holds the potential for quick action on payments, Ogletree, for example, has spent long, vain hours waiting to see a welfare worker on several occasions.
In addition, able-bodied recipients must work as many as nine days a month.
Some recipients say the small payoff at the end of the process does not merit such effort. For example, a homeless person who cannot supply a single day’s rent receipt is ineligible for the $186 portion of the grant devoted to housing costs and would receive just $105 per month.
“Around here, the feeling is that it’s just about impossible to get it,” said Mik, a 25-year-old from North Carolina who said he lives in a camper shell in a secluded Oceanside valley. “It takes anywhere from four to eight weeks to get it. I’ve seen the stack of papers you have to fill out to get it.
“It’s the hassle, the time involved. I can put my time into something much more worthwhile,” such as job-hunting, he said.
Bowman, the paralegal, said she believes the lengthened delay in payments is part of a deliberate attempt to reduce payouts.
“They’re slowing down on general relief because they don’t want to pay out county funds,” she said. “I think they know if you have to wait 60 or 70 days to receive general relief, you’d probably get the hell out of town by then.”
But Levitan, the Legal Aid lawyer, said he doesn’t believe “the delay is a deliberate tactic. I think the system has a lot of demands on it.”
There has been just one lawsuit in California over delays in processing general relief applications. In May, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the county could not violate its self-adopted standard that applications be reviewed in 30 days.
San Diego County has no clearly delineated standard, but advocates interviewed here said the review period should be trimmed to 15 days or less.
“I’d like to see 48 hours or 24 hours,” said Ann King, director for transition services for Episcopal Community Services in San Diego. “For somebody who has absolutely nothing . . . why do they have to wait weeks?”