March 28, 2013

The human face of Lewiston's welfare purge

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

LEWISTON — Katrina LaCourse sits on the stack of blankets where she sleeps, leafing through the paperwork that could spell the undoing of her cobbled-together life.

click image to enlarge

Katrina LaCourse, 47, may lose her rental voucher provided by Lewiston's general assistance program because the city said she misrepresented her financial situation and did not report a roommate.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Paul Poliquin, 59, a Lisbon Street merchant and former Lewiston city councilor, pictured on Wednesday March 28, 2013, says that he believes Lewiston has outgrown its reputation as a welfare hub.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Since August, she has been among the roughly 225 monthly recipients of General Assistance in Lewiston, where city officials have stepped up enforcement of eligibility rules, promising to prosecute violators.

On Friday, the city informed LaCourse, 47, that starting April 15, she would be cast from the welfare rolls for 120 days, eliminating the $420 in rent vouchers that keep her from living on the streets.

In the notification, officials say she willfully and falsely represented her eligibility, and that she did not report a roommate. She has not been summonsed, but she plans to challenge the allegations and the benefits cancellation.

"There's nothing I did wrong," said LaCourse, who will meet with the city Friday to explore her options. "I don't know what's going to happen to me."

Mayor Robert Macdonald's highly visible announcement Tuesday that his administration purged 84 welfare recipients from the system, including 50 for alleged fraud, highlight how Lewiston is attempting to shed the perception that its system is easy to game.

Skip Girouard, 76, who said he works seven days a week in his flower shop on Lisbon Street, applauded the initiative, and hopes the city will pursue jail time for convicted offenders.

"Lewiston is known as a place you can get welfare," he said. "It's sad. I think Macdonald is trying to straighten out the reputation."

The enforcement initiative also pleased Debra Clarke, 56. Clarke oversees a crew that sweeps city streets, shovels snow and cleans parks in exchange for the rent vouchers. Additionally, each worker must apply to six jobs every week and attend career classes as part of the "workfare" program.

She said that in the past four months, she's seen an improvement in the quality of the workers the city sends her way. Previously, Clarke said, some of the volunteers were unwilling to labor for their rent, exhibiting an attitude of entitlement.

"It's a vicious circle," she said. "They were brought up on welfare and don't know any better. You can't expect everyone to do everything for you."

One of the workers who donned an orange vest that day was Josh Emerson, 29, of Lewiston, who was incarcerated for 13 months after he was found guilty of a 2010 assault. Free since Jan. 20, Emerson has been in the program for about a month.

The assistance covers his rent, heat, and even provides $20 a month for personal items. It's not his first time receiving assistance. He was enrolled about three years ago, he said, and has noticed that the requirements have become more stringent since then.

"They used to be real lenient on a lot of things," said Emerson. "But I guess they're cracking down."

He and others on assistancewere among the dozens who lined up for a hot lunch Wednesday at Trinity Episcopal Church. Some who are on workfare earn their housing vouchers by cooking in the kitchen.

About 35 of the volunteers help serve the meals, said C.J. Jacobs, the kitchen manager, one of the few full-time employees at the church. Jacobs said some of the workfare volunteers earn food-service credentials that could help them find employment.

But the job market remains tough.

Erin Reed, development director at the Jubilee Center, said that in a single day she sometimes will help complete 20 applications, often to no avail.

"We've lost a lot of great jobs," said Reed, spooning baked chicken, boiled hotdogs, gravy and pasta onto Styrofoam trays for people streaming through the brightly lit kitchen.

(Continued on page 2)

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