March 28, 2013

The human face of Lewiston's welfare purge

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Reed said she wished the city could do more to help people find work and, the allegations of fraud notwithstanding, said demand for services remains high, noting that 1,000 families are enrolled in a food pantry program.

"Maybe there's fraud, but we don't see it here," said Reed, who lauded the workfare volunteers as hard-working and honest.

"I don't know what I'd do without this crew."

General assistance aid is a safety net of last resort for people who cannot afford basic necessities such as food, shelter or medication. The program, which is mandated by state law, is administered by municipalities, though the bulk of the cost is paid for by the state.

Last year, $13.23 million of the nearly $17.5 million in assistance came from state coffers, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Gov. Paul LePage has targeted the line-item in his biennial budget, proposing to cap the cost at $10.17 million statewide, part of a plan to bridge a $112 million gap in the Department of Health and Human Services budget.

In Portland, the state's largest provider of the aid, fraud cases in the last year represented 3 percent of 2,171 cases, or 103 instances. During the six-week period of investigation in Lewiston that ended Feb. 25, the city examined about 350 cases and found a fraud rate closer to 15 percent, said Sue Charron, Lewiston Director of Social Services.

Of the 50 fraud cases, Charron said 35 were applicants who allegedly falsified forms that are supposed to document where recipients are seeking work. Some had made up businesses or claimed they applied to a business when they never did. The other 15 were cited for falsely claiming they had no assets or income, or for other infractions. The remaining 34 cases were non-fraud related.

Lying on the forms is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail, according to the Lewiston Police Department, which has issued four summonses and is pursuing eight more.

Paul Poliquin, a 59-year-old former Lewiston city councilor who owns a clothing and shoe store on Lisbon Street, said he will wait to see if the mayor's efforts bear fruit in the form of convictions.

Poliquin, who last served on the council in 1995, said he believes Lewiston has outgrown its reputation as a welfare hub.

"I'm willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt," Poliquin said. "I want to see it followed through."

LaCourse, meanwhile, has nearly run out of options.

She has applied and been rejected for social security disability in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and is now attempting to obtain benefits in Maine.

Interviewed at her Lewiston apartment, LaCourse said she is resigned to living with interminable back pain caused, she said, by injuries sustained as a child and later when she worked as a construction flagger.

LaCourse, who has three sons that she sees infrequently, tries not to despair. She was last employed in 2009 at a convenience store in Yarmouth, she said, but re-injured herself when she slipped and fell.

When her situation is overwhelming and dark thoughts creep in, she thinks of her sons.

"What would they say if I quit?"

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at: mbyrne@mainetoday.com

 

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