I made my first visit to the Department of Human Services in NE Portland today to apply for food stamps.
Rows of theater seats face a large proscenium featuring a single pillar in the middle with a red “take-a-number” machine prominently featured. In the background are three empty desks and one desk occupied by a very serious, moderately occupied man. There is a sign on the wall that reads “92”. My number says “21”. I look around the room. About 10 people sit silently in the theater seats staring at the very slow moving drama before them.
The walls are covered with posters and flyers that speak of some collective target audience that I can’t grasp. There is a children’s play area that contains one plastic teal and pink “playtable” with nothing else. Next to me on a chair there is an issue of HOME magazine from 1992 advertising a trip to an Italian Villa. An ironic sign reads “Self Sufficiency”. The flourescent lights buzz dismally. Otherwise, it is mostly quiet.
Then I spot a box that says DROP-OFF BOX. “Oh good,” I think, “I can just drop off my application like it says here– Mail, fax or deliver this application.” I approach the box. A big green sign says STOP- DO NOT DROP OFF APPLICATIONS. I am confused. I look for a human. Most of them are sitting in the stage seating staring at stageman or reading. Stageman looks very serious in a don’t-bother-me sort of way. I look for a sign. On the wall is a plastic holder labeled “APPLICATIONS”. I pull out a paper. It is a printed stapled list of current hollywood movies. I am confused.
I walk to the other side of the office where there is a window, partially closed. Aha. A human. “Sure! Put it in the box!,” she says, “A lot of people ask that question, and we just tell ’em to put it in the box, and they don’t seem to mind. If you’re really concerned, just go up to the man over there and ask- you don’t have to wait for your number.”
Just then stageman calls “94”. I wave and approach stageman with a smile, “It says here that I can deliver this application, shall I put it in the drop box?” He looks at me grimly over his moustache and glasses and then at my form and instantly detects a blank space at 5 feet. “You forgot to sign here. No. Take a number and have a seat.”
Two hours later (when they were on number 5), I left. Now it is late in the night. I am awake. Here is the DHS of my dreams.
There are windows. The chairs are turned with some tables and clear signage that says things like:
“We at DHS value a world where we all work together to care for ourselves, each other and our environment. We value your role in our society as parents, friends, neighbors and creative individuals, and that is why we are here to support you. We know your time is important as you probably have other things to deal with right now (personal injury or disability, domestic violence, child custody, difficulty in relationships, lack of funds, court orders etc. etc.). We are working as quickly as possible to meet everyone’s needs, but it may take a while before we can help you.
While you are waiting please make yourself comfortable. Feel free to move the chairs and cushions as needed and browse our resource library full of materials that speak of human value, unconditional love, practical local resources and current news and information. Pamphlets are available on topics like, Parenting without Prizes, Stickers and Spankings, Compassionate Communication, Reduce your Carbon Footprint and Lower your Monthly Expenses, Using Foodstamps for a Healthy Organic Vegan Diet – Sample Grocery List and Recipes, Ten Ways to Find Cash, Clothes, Food and Health Care for those with Limited Mobility, Removing Toxins from your Lunch and your Living Space.
Have a seat at one of the tables and balance your checkbook, continue work on your novel, or chat with other small business owners, can collectors, and homeless transients about your challenges and successes. For those with small children take this chance to interact with other parents and children in our play area- feel free to sit on the floor, bring toys to share or take turns watching the children while adults fill out necessary forms. Need to get something off your chest? Visit our empathy table at the back of the room or put your feet up in our quiet area. Thank you for your visit to DHS.”