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Erie County strives to undo the ugliness where people look for help

Renee Biniecki remembered once standing in a welfare line as a child. She was with her mother, who had left an abusive husband and suddenly had to support her children alone. The county waiting area was an imposing and unfriendly place.

Little has changed since then.

Litter on the floor, graffiti-coated bathroom walls, broken water fountains and toilets, restless children squirming in plastic seats and repeatedly rebuked by parents who wait to be seen for hours in the crowded waiting room.

Welcome to the Erie County Department of Social Services.

A $1 million overhaul will soon remake the 15,000-square-foot Social Services footprint, which encompasses the first-floor waiting area and related staff office space. Work is scheduled to begin next week. And Biniecki, who now works as the department’s logistics coordinator, will oversee much of the work.

This space on the first floor of the Rath County Office Building at 95 Franklin St. in downtown Buffalo is so noisy that dozens of ugly black quilts hang over the customer service windows to help muffle the din from the 15,000 people who cycle through the shabby area every month. A makeshift easel with Scotch-taped copy paper crudely attempts to tell visitors where to go to get help.

“I’m sorry, but my first impression would be to run the other way,” Biniecki said.

She and other department administrators readily admit that the county’s busiest reception area sends a clear message to poor, struggling residents: You are not wanted.

Securing the money to renovate this area has taken years of lobbying, even though there’s no shortage of people, including both Social Services staffers and members of the public, who have complained about it. Administrators expect that about 60 percent of the $1 million cost will be reimbursed through state and federal funds.

Biniecki’s eyes light with excitement at the work ahead.

“It’s like watching your baby being born,” she said.

Unwelcoming look

In Erie County, red-carpet treatment is reserved for people who give the county money, not those who take it.

Consider the Department of Motor Vehicles, located on the other end of the same building as Social Services since 2009. That service area welcomes customers with comfortable seating, light wood finishes, a children’s area under renovation, earth-toned walls and two large, flat-screen TVs. An an easy-to-read digital system lets customers know when they’re about to be called, and a pleasant, automated voice directs every customer to the appropriate window.

At the other end of the sidewalk, workers call Social Services clients by name or number over a loudspeaker that is sometimes hard to hear. The drab, institutional fixtures and flooring appear perpetually dirty despite routine cleaning. One small television is set up in a place where few waiting clients can easily view it.

“It’s nasty,” said Rachel Jones, 43, a homeless woman originally from South Buffalo. “The whole place is disgusting.”

The Rath Building houses several Social Services reception areas spread across four floors, but it’s the first floor where most new clients are first processed. This area sees foot traffic of roughly 12,500 people a month for things such as application information, initial benefits screenings and referrals to other Social Services units.

An additional 2,500 homeless people a month come through the same area for help.

Jones and her family are staying at a family shelter, but her husband was told recently that he had to stay elsewhere because the couple couldn’t produce their marriage certificate.

They had spent an entire day at Social Services the previous week trying to sort the matter out and were back again in another bid to keep their family together, Jones said.

They recently traveled to the city from Dunkirk and, like others who have received public assistance elsewhere, said Erie County’s client processing area is the worst they’ve seen.

“The ladies here are rude,” Jones said. “And if you’re rude back, they call the cops.”

‘Fights in the lobby’

Client screeners, meanwhile, consider their daily setting ugly, noisy and uncomfortable.

Administrators hope that the $1 million renovation, which begins next week, will help address many of the complaints.

“Frankly, I’m appalled that we welcome people into the county who need assistance like this,” said Mary Ellen Brockmyre, a deputy commissioner for Social Services.

“It’s very frustrating for somebody to spend half an hour, 45 minutes in line just to be told, ‘You have to stand in another line.’ There’s fights in the lobby all the time, and I can’t blame people.”

The $1 million renovation is about more than looking better. It also is expected to streamline client processing so those who need in-and-out assistance can get it faster and those who need more help are clearly and promptly directed to the right stations.

The new lineup system will borrow heavily from the same automated system used by the DMV, Biniecki said. The public areas will be nearly a third larger than they are now.

And instead of one main waiting area that mixes everyone together no matter what services they need, the renovated space will separate visitors into three different waiting areas, depending on the help they need.

People who only require in-and-out assistance will be helped more quickly and will no longer share space with those who need extra counseling.

Flimsy, movable walls and window stations, which lend a temporary feel to the crowded processing area, will be replaced with new stations finished with drywall.

All of this construction will be an inconvenience to Social Services clients over the next year. But administrators say the wait will be worth it.

Commissioner Al Dirschberger said the department’s philosophy should be reflected in what its clients see.

“We want to treat people with respect,” he said. “It starts when you walk through the door.”

Social Services clients weren’t consulted on the changes, but when asked, they had suggestions.

Jomaris Torres, 30, a homeless woman, was one of several people who said the “disgusting” restrooms need to be redone.

“And put in an area for kids,” she said. “The kids are always running everywhere.”

Access for the handicapped is another problem. Workers sit on elevated stools at high counters. When one man using a wheelchair arrived for assistance, the counter reached his eyebrows. Other clients shuffled slowly toward windows where they were forced to stand, leaning on canes or the arms of relatives.

A personal perspective

One woman, who was applying for food stamps and had waited nearly three hours for service, interrupted a conversation between Biniecki and a reporter to ask why the department had eliminated all access to power outlets. That makes it impossible for clients to charge their cellphones after watching their battery life drain during the long waits.

A charging station for clients is a good idea, Biniecki told her.

And while the current plans don’t include a children’s area, Biniecki said the department will likely add one.

The renovation does call for restroom improvements and handicapped access.

Some critics would argue Social Services clients don’t deserve a better space. They might scoff at the county’s willingness to spend $1 million to create a pleasant environment for dependent residents who regularly take taxpayer money and treat the Social Services intake area with casual disregard and, sometimes, outright abuse.

Torn-down window blinds, broken fixtures and vandalized restrooms on the first floor can all be traced back to unruly Social Services clients.

Biniecki has heard all this before and shakes her head. She thinks about her mother, who needed welfare assistance for eight years before she got her life back together, passed a civil service exam and wound up spending the next 17 years as a Social Services employee.

Biniecki’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled the look on her mother’s face when she learned she had gotten the job.

Then Biniecki remembered the day her husband died in a car accident and left her with a 2-year-old son and no transportation at the age of 24.

“People run into problems,” she said. “They don’t choose them.”