AUGUSTA — Portland officials are looking for more flexibility when pursuing reimbursement from the home communities of people staying in city homeless shelters or requesting General Assistance.
A bill pending in the Legislature calls for changing the residency determination process to state that wherever a person lived “immediately prior to applying for assistance” is responsible for providing General Assistance to the individual. In cases where the person is not a resident of a specific municipality, the municipality where the person first applies for General Assistance would be obligated to provide the assistance.
The proposed change – one of a half-dozen General Assistance-related bills considered by lawmakers Monday – aims to help Portland and other “service center” communities recoup costs incurred when they take in residents of other communities without homeless shelters.
David MacLean, director of social services for the Portland Health and Human Services Department, said that roughly one-third of the “new intakes” at the Oxford Street Shelter between March 2016 and March 2017 were not Portland residents. Past attempts by the city to be reimbursed by other municipalities have largely proven unsuccessful, he said.
“Some of those individuals have made a choice to move to Portland to seek employment opportunities. Those individuals would rightly belong to Portland in terms of GA responsibility,” MacLean told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “But there are those who had apartments or lived with friends or relatives for periods of time in another municipality and – due to the loss of employment or other resources – have gone to the municipality requesting emergency housing or through General Assistance. They are often told that their municipality does not have a shelter and they are then provided information on what shelters are available, and we know that most of the time all arrows point to Portland.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, predicted the proposed changes “will help relieve the financial burden” on service center communities that are fulfilling their moral and legal responsibilities to offer housing and assistance.
“But simply because Portland residents and leaders have taken it upon themselves to ensure shelters exist where they are needed doesn’t mean Portland residents alone should shoulder the financial burden of providing assistance to homeless individuals,” Chipman said.
The only testimony against L.D. 1109 came from the Maine Municipal Association, which cautioned that verifying the residency of General Assistance applicants would pose an “administrative nightmare” to municipalities.
Lawmakers also are considering several controversial bills – some of which are repeats of measures that failed last legislative session – seeking further eligibility restrictions on General Assistance or to impose tougher penalties on those trying to defraud the system.
One bill would limit a person to receiving no more than nine months of General Assistance over a five-year period. Another measure would declare that anyone who has exhausted the 60-month limit to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families also would be ineligible for General Assistance under most circumstances.
“The General Assistance program is intended as a program to provide acute, short-term assistance for individuals in need. … It is not intended to be a long-term program,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, sponsor of the two bills. “It is intended to be a program of last resort when all other programs and safety nets have failed to catch someone. And yet it is not always acting in that way.”
A third bill would increase the suspension period from 120 days to 24 months for anyone caught falsifying information on a General Assistance application.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services supported all of the bills to restrict the time limits and strengthen the penalties for General Assistance fraud.
“Lengthening the period of penalty for such a false representation will act as a greater deterrent and will more strongly convey the seriousness of making a false statement to receive benefits,” said Bethany Hamm, director of the DHHS Office for Family Independence. “Additionally, GA is a needs-based program for which there are limited funds. It is crucial that these limited funds be used only for eligible individuals who play by the rules.”
But municipal General Assistance administrators, religious leaders and advocates for low-income Mainers urged lawmakers to once again reject measures they said would only exacerbate homelessness and poverty.
“Cutting back on the safety net doesn’t mean Maine families will suddenly find financial security,” said Thomas Ptacek, an advocate for the homeless at Preble Street, the nonprofit that provides housing and community resources in Portland. “It means they often end up in the horror of homelessness.”
Representatives for the Maine Council of Churches, the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland all spoke against the bills. They also cautioned lawmakers not to expect churches and nonprofits to be able to fill the void when the state cuts back services to low-income Mainers.
“That myth is not based in any type of reality,” said Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of HopeGateWay Church in Portland, speaking on behalf of the Maine Council of Churches. “There is simply no way we can provide housing … and food to those being denied GA. We are doing all that we can and are happy to do it … but we are stretched thin.”
The committee is scheduled to hold work sessions on the bills on April 18.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: