Looking for a snail mail alternative

March 6, 2012 

Just a few of the million-plus pieces of mail that the DPSS must, under federal regulations, mail to itself each year.

It may sound like a bureaucratic absurdity straight out of Dilbert: Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to send itself more than a million pieces of mail each year.

But the reality is no laughing matter.

Federal regulations require the department to communicate with all recipients of CalFresh benefits (formerly known as food stamps) by means of paper mail.

Many homeless recipients list the department’s address as their own so that they may receive benefits. But often, they pick up their mail irregularly, if at all. And that has created mail backlogs and service delays at DPSS offices. The department estimates it spent at least $390,000 on such mailings last year.

So this week, the Board of Supervisors, acting on a motion by Supervisor Don Knabe, directed the Chief Executive Office and DPSS to explore whether there’s a legislative way around the regulations. The motion did not specify a timeframe for coming up with such a strategy.

If allowed to do so, DPSS proposes changing to a system in which people using the department’s address would receive electronic mail which they could access or have printed out for them at DPSS offices.

But altering the system could have some unintended consequences. Christine Khalili-Borna of the Public Counsel Law Center said creating email accounts could raise privacy concerns and might also make it harder for other county agencies, including Public Health, to reach homeless clients.

“This proposed motion might be a good option for those individuals who have the skills, ability and access to email,” Khalili-Borna said. “However, a large number of homeless participants—especially the most vulnerable, including those with mental health, developmental and literacy issues—do not have the skills or means necessary to access this crucial information.”

She said her organization would be willing to work with the county as it explores ways to change the current system. Her offer was accepted.

Posted 3/6/12

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