They call it the straight-face test. And Tuesday afternoon, just in the nick of time, the powers that be at Portland City Hall passed it.

“I can’t believe it! I’m just so happy right now!” said Christina Shaw upon hearing that her day in court against the city’s Health and Human Services Department – over her failure to report a whopping 28 cents in income – won’t be necessary after all.

That’s right. Until the city finally called off its attorneys, a struggling family’s entire future hinged on a quarter and three pennies.

Here’s what happened.

Late in January, Shaw bundled up two of her kids – Max, 2, and Mariah, 1 – and headed out from their apartment on Auburn Street to do the grocery shopping at Portland’s Northgate Plaza.

In this 26-year-old mother’s world, that is not as simple as it sounds.

Shaw, you see, has no income – she dropped out of Bonny Eagle High School in Standish when she was 13 after years of special education. To this day, she said, she reads and writes at only the third-grade level.

Her life over the past year has been a work in progress – the state took custody of her three kids last summer while Shaw and her kids were living in the city’s family shelter.

Shaw’s son Damon, 5, remains with his grandparents. But since Shaw managed to get the younger two back late last year, she has worked full time – as in parenting classes, counseling sessions and whatever other hoops the Maine Department of Health and Human Services insists she jump through – to keep her young family from splitting permanently at the seams.

Tim Hoffman, Shaw’s live-in boyfriend and the father of Max and Mariah, also has no job. According to Shaw, Hoffman sustained serious injuries a few years back when he fell two stories while working for a roofing contractor.

Thus, the family relies on Portland’s General Assistance program to cover the $850 monthly rent on their apartment, as well as every-other-week vouchers worth $85.35 for food and $10.50 for non-food items. (They also receive $350 in monthly food stamps and get their health needs met through MaineCare.)

In short, these people don’t just rely on the social safety net – they’re immersed in it. And while that might make your blood boil in these fiscally challenged times, let’s not forget the two young children who asked for none of this.

So there Shaw stood in the grocery-store checkout line that day, caught between Mariah with a full diaper, Max with a cranky hankering for candy they couldn’t afford and a store clerk who told Shaw, over and over, that the non-food items she’d piled on the counter exceeded the $10.50 voucher.

Shaw frantically mixed and matched. She left in the toilet paper, but took out the … window cleaner? And still, while the line of increasingly exasperated customers looked on, the total hovered stubbornly at $10.78.

That’s when a friend named Dave, who’d responded to Shaw’s plea for a ride home, stepped in.

While Shaw changed Mariah on a nearby bench, Dave handed the clerk a $20 bill to cover the 28-cent deficit. The clerk rang up the sale and handed Dave his $19.72 in change.

Fast forward to last month, when Shaw stopped by the city’s welfare office to receive her monthly General Assistance vouchers.

“It was like, ‘Boom! You’re denied,’” she recalled.

Why?

For that, let’s go to the decision issued last week by Stephen Bither, the city fair hearing officer who heard – and turned down – Shaw’s and Hoffman’s appeal.

“Ms. Shaw did not report the receipt of the 28 cents to the Department,” wrote Bither. “This was a violation of the ordinance and procedures of the Department that require applicants to report assistance of any amount when re-applying for benefits.”

Now even Bither conceded in his decision that the 28-cent transgression – discovered when the city’s General Assistance staff compared her voucher with her receipt – was “extremely small.”

But it didn’t matter.

“If Ms. Shaw had reported that she received it, her benefits for the next period would have been reduced by 28 cents,” noted Bither. “Because she did not, she faces a disqualification for 120 days.”

(To be fair, Bither also cited a previous denial of Shaw’s benefits for unreported income in March 2011. Shaw says that denial, which she did not appeal, stemmed from unsubstantiated allegations by an angry friend who later recanted.)

Bottom line, Bither’s ruling dropped the monthly housing voucher from $850 (for a family of four) to just $715 (for the two kids only).

Without the voucher, Shaw and Hoffman couldn’t pay the rent. Without the rent, they’d likely lose the apartment. And without the apartment, they’d be back in the shelter while the state, once again, came to get the kids.

Enter Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Katie McGovern, who in 10 years of working with Portland’s poor considered this “the most ridiculous denial I have ever seen.”

“If she becomes homeless, the cost to (taxpayers) is much more significant than allowing her to maintain her housing, which allows her to keep her family intact,” noted McGovern during a meeting with Shaw in her office on Tuesday morning.

That’s why McGovern served the city with notice last week that Shaw would exercise her right to appeal the denial in Cumberland County Superior Court.

“Christina has done a lot of work in order to improve her life and be a good parent and work toward some kind of self-sufficiency in the future,” said McGovern. “As a society, it doesn’t make sense that we not assist her in that process or that we not allow her very vulnerable children to be in safe, decent housing.”

Late Tuesday, responding to an earlier request for comment on how 28 cents can render an entire family homeless, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city’s legal staff decided after “additional review” to reinstate Shaw’s and Hoffman’s General Assistance benefits.

Meaning, upon imagining how a busy trial judge might react to all this, they caved?

“I don’t think that’s a legal term,” replied the ever-tactful Clegg.

Whatever it is, it’s a lesson learned for Shaw: When pinching pennies, don’t forget to also report them.

“I couldn’t imagine losing my kids again – I just couldn’t,” she said. “Now, I get to sleep tonight.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]