TAMPA — Grisel Del Moral arrived at the Lee Davis Neighborhood Service Center at 4 a.m. Monday, a crescent moon shining above.
Lee Davis is where Central Tampa residents facing hard times can seek short-term government help to get them through a financial crisis. Its workers dole out rent payments, money for the light bill, job referrals, even free medical treatment.
But those in need have to wake up early, or better yet, stay up late. Long lines form each day — often starting shortly after midnight — with many in need turned away after waiting for hours.
Hillsborough County officials who oversee the program say the crowds are a sign of the times. Lines are particularly long at Lee Davis, on 22nd Street, which serves some of the county's poorest communities.
"I think what you're seeing in the lines is a reflection of the economy," said Tom Cavaleri, acting director of social services for the county. "It's based on demand."
But a soon-to-be-ex-supervisor with the agency — a victim of county layoffs — says the lines are not new. They have been common at county social service centers throughout the county, said Bernadine White-King, whose last day is today.
"The lines have been there," said White-King, who was the subject of a spirited public campaign to save her job this summer. "It's never been exposed."
White-King oversaw the county's homeless recovery and a summer food program for children, until today. She is speaking out now because she can, she said, and those who still work for the county cannot.
"We do not have adequate staff to handle the onslaught of people we have been having."
Her bosses say White-King is overstating matters. Yes, there have been lines in the past, but they were episodic.
Only recently have they been routine, with demands for help up between 8 and 10 percent since last year, said Dave Rogoff, director of the county's Health and Social Services Department.
"Logically, you would have known about it before now if it was an ongoing saga," Rogoff said.
It's an ongoing saga now. Visits to Lee Davis Friday and Monday paint the picture, with dozens seeking help turned away.
Del Moral was one of the lucky ones. She at least got to meet with a caseworker.
She cleans houses for a living. Business is slow. Her rent is due in a few days, and she was hoping for help to pay it.
Del Moral showed up well before sunup Monday, thinking she would be first in line. She was 17th. The first arrived three hours earlier to compete for limited slots.
"You are so scared, you still don't know if you're going to get in," said Del Moral, a Puerto Rican native, speaking of her place in line. "It's ridiculous."
By the time doors opened at 7:30 a.m., almost 60 people stood behind her, many with children in tow. Most were told to come back today.
They included Dean Mullen, 52, who caught a ride from Riverview with his sister-in-law.
Mullen has back and nerve damage that leaves him unable to drive a commercial truck, as he did for years. He can't find work, yet doesn't qualify for disability benefits.
He carries a walking stick and his Tampa Electric Co. bill. The notice threatens to cut off his power because he is $375 past due.
"Crazy," is all he said as he was turned away.
Whyphinnie Vines' fourth visit in as many days was the charm. Vines, 47, arrived at 5 a.m. looking for job referrals. She got an appointment with a case manager at 9:30 a.m.
Rogoff, the health and social services director, said he hopes to shorten lines by making better use of technology.
He wants to install computer kiosks that would let people register what sort of help they need and tell them what documentation they need to provide. Employees would be on hand to help those who are not able.
He would also like to create an appointment system to help avoid the cattle call arrangement that he says has worked until recently. And he said he's working to weed out people who chronically seek assistance.
Like other department heads, he was asked to trim spending this summer in the wake of property tax cuts. He was able to underwrite some of his programs with federal grant money, but still trimmed five jobs.
All but one were administrative, including White-King's; the other was vacant and dealt strictly with health care. None were employees who work directly with residents to help find jobs or rent money, Rogoff said.
"I did not cut a single rank- and-file person," he said.
Still, County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who questioned White-King's dismissal during budget talks this summer, recalls Rogoff telling her that service would not be affected by his proposed cuts. Rogoff didn't describe the increasing demand, however.
"If it's a sign of the times. We need to address it," Ferlita said. "Why now as opposed to ever would we reduce our ability to accommodate people?
"That's inexcusable, unacceptable."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387..