Public assistance recipients and advocates are protesting what they call "poor treatment" at the new Salt Lake Central District office, located in the ExpoMart downtown.

A letter bearing more than 150 signatures was delivered to the Department of Social Services Friday.In the letter, members of the Welfare Rights Coalition complained of long lines, confusion with multiple lines and no directions, long waits to pick up food stamps, rude and abusive - or negligent - treatment by office staff, broken appointments at the last minute and discrimination against homeless clients. The group has asked for a meeting with the district director, Lynn Samsel.

Coalition members also set up a table in front of the office to distribute information and share problems encountered at the office.

The office, 2N, is a consolidation of two former offices. Coalition members have said that combining the offices into one location would create problems for those receiving benefits.

"The lines on the first and the fifth of the month were clear out to the street," said Glenn Bailey of Crossroads Urban Center. "The problem is the system's screwed up. It's not a question of getting workers to give 110 percent. It's a question of correcting the system."

Earl Bassett, deputy director of the Office of Community Operations, said that long waits are the exception, rather than the rule. But by law the state has 30 days to process assistance applications. "Our average is considerably better than that," he said.

"Sometimes clients have to come back again because they didn't bring in all the documentation we require. And this is a new location, where we are learning to work as a team and trying to solve problems. We're making a concerted effort to make things work as smoothly as possible. We recognize that we have things to learn. But overall, the system is working pretty well."

Several clients said they have had to wait in line repeatedly for long periods of time to pick up benefits. Sometimes, they said, when they get to the front after a long wait, they are told their benefits aren't ready. It is common, they said, to have to return to the office a number of times to get help.

Sherry, a pregnant single mother, said she waited in the office from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., before she got to see her case worker. In an effort to be more self-sufficient, she is a full-time student, but she has had to miss six school days in three weeks to go to the welfare office.

"Then I get different stories from different people," she said. "One day I waited for two hours, then was told my case was closed because I hadn't provided information. Then they mailed me back the information I had never turned in."

John Strong is a Vietnam veteran who received an honorable discharge when his knee was shattered by a bullet. He can't work and needs more surgery. He applied for general assistance two weeks ago. While he waits to see if the state will help him, he sleeps out by the railroad yard.

"The Veteran's Administration has said it will give me some vocational rehab training," he said, "but I need help with just living." He said he had to return to the central office multiple times to complete paperwork and check in, and he still won't get any help before next week - if then.

"I fought for my country and for freedom. Now I have the freedom to starve to death. If there's another war, tell them not to call John," he said. "John won't go."