Utah's public assistance system is in crisis.

That's the conclusion of a non-scientific "hardship survey" conducted during the last two months of 1988 by Utahns Against Hunger and Crossroads Urban Center, with the help of community agencies.Interviews conducted at emergency food pantries and public assistance offices across the state documented delays in processing applications for benefits, improperly closed cases, lost documents, difficulty reaching caseworkers and a variety of other problems.

Utah's safety net of human services desperately needs repair, according to Julie Shepherd, UAH issues advocate. The state now takes the maximum time allowed by federal law to issue benefits - and sometimes exceeds that federal limit, forcing applicants to go to emergency food pantries or go hungry.

Of those surveyed, 43 percent said their cases had been closed at least once because of paperwork lost by the state. Nearly 80 percent said they couldn't reach their caseworker by telephone or in person and reported long waits during office visits. One woman waited seven hours for a brief screening interview, where she was told she must wait weeks for an intake appointment.

Community advocates and Department of Social Service officials agree that understaffing has created major problems in area Offices of Community Operations. While 355 workers handled 56,000 cases in 1985, the same number of workers now manage over 71,000 cases. It would take 64 new caseworkers to regain the 1985 staffing ratio.

Most clients said their caseworkers helped as much as they could but were "crushed by the caseload."

Shepherd said the survey is not a scientific sampling but an effort to focus attention on the plight of Utah's poor who are trying to survive within a system that's malfunctioning.

In addition to the survey, advocacy groups and Social Service employees conducted on-site and telephone monitoring of OCO offices across the state. A federal court-ordered monitoring of the expedited food stamp program in Utah, and the monitoring pointed out a number of barriers to public assistance statewide.

Social Services offices in Ogden and Layton didn't have signs on the building. Ogden's homeless were invited to return and apply for assistance "in a few weeks" if their situations hadn't improved. Bountiful applicants had to go to Clearfield to apply for assistance, and in Richfield, applicants were told to fill out a thick stack of forms, including applications for a program not offered in Richfield and papers not needed until the later interview.

Several offices didn't tell people they could apply when they made inquiries and some offices discouraged applicants by requiring documentation that was unnecessary, according to the monitors.