Friday, February 25, 2011

Sacramento County's neediest must wait weeks for aid

Sacramento County's neediest must wait weeks for aid

Published Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

Sacramento County's poorest residents are waiting longer to receive cash assistance because of a double whammy common to social service programs these days.
The county has fewer caseworkers even as the need for services has increased.
The county tries to finish applications for its General Assistance program within six weeks, or two weeks longer than it did a year ago, said Paul Lake, director of the Human Assistance Department. Applications are taking as long as two months to approve, he said.
Advocates for the poor, however, say claims are taking two months to three months to complete. The county is hurting these people because they have no other money to survive, advocates say.
General Assistance provides them with a $190 monthly cash grant, a $25 bus pass, and a $40 contribution that enables them to get health care. They're limited to three months of benefits unless they're disabled.
Called the aid program of last resort, General Assistance is available only to people who don't qualify for other cash benefits, don't work full-time and have less than $10 to their name.
Anger and frustration over the waiting time was apparent this week at the county's Human Assistance office on 28th Street in Sacramento. A line of nearly 100 people snaked out the front door, waiting to check in.
After that, applicants sat in a waiting room the size of a basketball court with dozens of other people needing to meet with one of the county's 16 caseworkers. Sheriff's deputies were assigned to the lobby, and Lake concedes the county has had problems with angry applicants.
Mona Ryan said she had been waiting for two hours to meet with a caseworker. She said she came to the office to apply on another day and left because the line outside was too long.
"I'm not very pleased with it – the wait is just too much," said Ryan, adding that she's unemployed and needs money to help pay rent.
Edward Knight, an unemployed construction worker, said he's been waiting for his application to be approved since the start of January. He said he needs the bus pass and health benefits.
"I'm living on borrowed time," said Knight, who has been staying with friends and family.
General Assistance caseloads have grown in Sacramento County and across California as the state continues to struggle with the recession.
In November, about 150,000 people statewide were receiving General Assistance, a 9.7 percent increase over the previous year, the state's most recent figures show.
Sacramento County had about 8,400 General Assistance clients in January, a 5.5 percent increase from the year before, according to the county.
The increase has come as the Human Assistance Department lost 6 percent of its staff in the budget year that started July 1. General Assistance went from 76 employees to 16 employees, but that's because the division is no longer responsible for food stamps.
To become eligible for General Assistance, applicants must provide documents to prove income, residency and other background information, Lake said. Caseworkers have to further verify the information, he said.
Lake defends the agency's performance in difficult times. He said emergency awards for food stamps – now called CalFresh – are made within days and people in dire situations are routed to other services.
Lake, who recently became the department's director, said the agency has taken a number of steps to try to expedite the process, such as redesigning forms for ease of use, and paying employees overtime to concentrate solely on casework.
The effort hasn't satisfied advocates for the poor. Beth Magnino, a caseworker at Loaves & Fishes, said homeless people using the charity's services have indicated a significant backlog in General Assistance claims – forcing clients to wait as long as three months.
She said the county should move more caseworkers into General Assistance since the recipients are those in greatest need.
Chio Saephanh, an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California, offers a similar perspective. She said the legal aid service has received a number of complaints about General Assistance applications.
"They're facing delays when they are already at the bottom," she said.

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