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Frustration among poor D.C. residents grows at understaffed assistance center

Aaron Colbert, right, was first in line at the Income Maintenance Administration service center in Anacostia last Thursday and was one of about 35 District residents in line before it opened at 7:30. The center, which used to serve 150 to 200 people per day, now sees about 350.
Aaron Colbert, right, was first in line at the Income Maintenance Administration service center in Anacostia last Thursday and was one of about 35 District residents in line before it opened at 7:30. The center, which used to serve 150 to 200 people per day, now sees about 350. (Gerald Martineau For Twp - The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Service centers that process welfare and other aid applications in the District are understaffed and overwhelmed with needy residents, forcing some to essentially camp out for days to try to get assistance.

The long lines, which some D.C. Council members are calling a crisis, are raising fresh fears that the city is failing to adjust to the needs of its poorest residents as the economic downturn continues.

On several visits to the Income Maintenance Administration service center in Anacostia last week, a Washington Post reporter witnessed a crush of residents crammed into the office waiting to complete applications for food stamps, medical and rental assistance, or emergency cash payments.

For many, it was their second or third consecutive visit. So many people show up for aid that on any given day, more than 100 might be turned away at the close of business, even though they have been in the waiting area for up to eight hours.

"This is my third time here this week," said Patrick Carter, 28, who was trying to apply for food stamps. "I have a 5-year-old daughter, so I can't afford to be sitting here all day."

City officials say a combination of recent budget cuts and the continued economic slowdown have led to extended waiting times. Last year, the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) closed two of the seven IMA service centers to save a little under $1 million. Although the administration pledged that the remaining centers would be wellstaffed, District officials say those promises have been stymied by the recession, which has limited the city's ability to hire workers.

At the same time, the Department of Human Services is facing a growing demand for services as the city's unemployment rate has climbed to 10 percent; in Ward 8, the figure is 28 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 103,000 District residents participate in the food stamp program, a 22 percent increase since 2007.

City officials say they are working to hire more people, install self-service kiosks and redesign the Anacostia center.

Meanwhile, dozens of people have been lining up at the service centers in frigid weather before dawn to try to secure an appointment with a caseworker.

"I keep getting turned away," Joseph A. Cooper, 73, said Friday while waiting to get his medical assistance benefits recertified. "After staying here five hours [Thursday], they come out and tell us all they can't take anybody else. We need a better system."

Many of those in the Anacostia waiting area last week were pregnant or had a disability. Others brought their young children, who became quickly bored in a room featuring a television set with a fuzzy screen.

"The system is stressed," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Human Services. "We have had major cuts, and that can't be painless . . . But we have a major problem here that the government must address."


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