You raise your head and look around uneasily. You could ask for help from the poised and well-dressed caseworkers who periodically sweep down the aisles like schoolteachers. (Are they looking to see if anyone is cheating?)

Application for Benefits: “If applying ONLY for Medical Assistance and ONLY for the children only, you just need to provide the citizen/alien status for the children for whom you are applying.”

It is 10:45 in the morning, and the waiting room in the Hillcrest Service Center is full of family groups loosening their coats after battling the wind outside—about 32 people altogether hope to sign up for a little extra support from the city to ease them through the cold months. Most are mothers with a small child or two. You bend again over your application for benefits and anxiously flip through it. Let’s see…

“Are you or anyone for whom you are applying either a convicted felon in flight to avoid capture or in violation of probation or parole?”

A woman who is like a principal, in a handsome yellow jacket and serious glasses, walks through the waiting room, stopping at each family group to ask—very pleasantly but briskly:

“What are you here for? Have you checked in at the counter? Have you talked to your case manager?”

If you say you are “waiting,” she will immediately offer to “write you up.” This is not a place where you can hide for long.

At the counter, three clerks look as bright-eyed as squirrels at a bird feeder. You must surrender your name to one of them. Tacked to the counter are large-lettered signs that make a clerk responsible for residents in houses numbered 1 to 900, or 902 to 1,399, or 1,400 to 9,999. The pace is swift once you find your right number and clerk. Case managers appear at the front to call families back to consulting booths—and there, you imagine, the truth will out. Where are the children’s birth certificates? Your naturalization papers or green card? A criminal-history check is only a click of the computer away. Even a burial plot must be revealed as an asset. “Your needs will be removed from the grant,” the application says, if you misrepresent. You could be looking at 20 years in prison. So much for fudging on citizenship. And forget your impulse to pretend that you’ve kept in touch with your probation officer.

Some public spaces are anonymous: No one asks your name, no one cares, and, unless you dance or scream, no one stares (bus stations, Metro platforms, stadiums). In other public spaces, if you dress and act as if you belong, that is the only ID you need (hotel and hospital lobbies). But some spaces are owned: You can’t go into them without declaring yourself. Hillcrest Service Center is one of these.

The guards at the door eye you carefully as you toss down your bus change and run your bag through X-ray. Even the customers watch as you enter. Are you client or counselor? Black, Latino, Asian, or Euro? Are you hungry or cold? What do you want? What are you likely to get? When one person leaves, the security officer strides over to straighten the chairs before the next mom or grandpa slips in; she sternly glances at those who remain.

On one wall is a friendly announcement:

WELCOME TO HILLCREST

SERVICE CENTER

But facing it on the other wall is a big poster:

WELFARE REFORM IS REAL

WATCH THE CLOCK

Today there is no talk between groups, only murmurs within families and an occasional call to an out-of-bounds child. Most of the energy comes from a tiny cubicle converted to a play area: A boy about 5 has organized two smaller children. His urgent questions and directions rise above the undercurrent of adult talk. His 8-year-old sister, hair neatly brushed and secured with blue bands, plays mother to the others until they burst from whispers to yells. Up jumps the security guard to quiet them, and within 30 seconds the 8-year-old has organized the other children into a new game: marching to the literature shelf with armloads of pamphlets.

On that shelf, in Spanish and English, is Judge Kessler’s Federal Notice in Oscar Salazar v. District of Columbia: You may be entitled to reimbursement if you had to pay for medical care because the District delayed or lost your application for benefits. Oh yes: delay and loss. This very room was once the palace of delay and loss, the home of misery, tears, and missing pieces of paper, the gathering place for everyone who wanted help from the city. And look at it now: a neighborhood office, clean and brisk, with even a few green plants struggling up the wall.

No one looks hungry. No one looks cold. No one is crying. No one is angrily muttering.

Outside on H Street NE, the traffic sweeps by from Union Station to Benning Road, past Murry’s, Shoe City, and the lively talkers at the bus stop by the bank. A couple of caseworkers are munching half-smokes at the snack wagon. A flock of 3-year-olds in bright coats and mittens herd gently up 6th Street, shepherded by large, calm women. —Judith Larsen