PORTLAND — Discussion will continue May 2 about potential cuts in city aid to the homeless and asylum seekers.

City councilors on Monday reviewed details about the Community Support Fund established by the city to help immigrants ineligible for other assistance, as well as City Manager Jon Jennings’ intent to close the third option for overflow at the Oxford Street Shelter.

Jennings has proposed cutting the Community Support Fund by $50,000 to $150,000 in the fiscal year 2020 budget, a first step toward eliminating the fund.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the council Finance Committee will review the plans again at City Hall.

The fund was created in 2015 to ensure asylum-seekers ruled ineligible for General Purpose Aid by the state Department of Health & Human Services would get the aid for rent, medicine and other necessities offered by GA.

A subsequent law passed by the Legislature offered two years of GA (the aid is reimbursed by the state to local communities) to asylum-seekers, but a department rule change that year applied the aid only to those who had filed for asylum, as opposed to those “actively seeking a status change.”

While Jennings and some councilors said it is time to pressure the state to return to the prior interpretation, Aaron Geyer, the acting city Social Services director, presented data showing the $200,000 budgeted for aid this year has been spent.

The largest expense has been rental assistance. The city budgeted $131,000, has spent $186,000, and is projected to spend $202,000 by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Last week, councilors did accept and appropriate $45,000 in private contributions to offset rent assistance, but Geyer said the state interpretation on GA reimbursements is costing it and the city more money.

Because immigrants ineligible for GA are not going to other communities without a Community Support Fund, they arrive in a city with the highest rents in the state. This not only strains the city budget, it costs the state more in reimbursements when GA eligibility is established.

Geyer said a change in interpretation might cost the state more upfront in reimbursing rental assistance in other communities, but would save $16,000 for a two-bedroom apartment over the 24 months GA is paid.

Jennings, Geyer and Kristen Dow, interim director of Health & Human Services, said the city is also asking neighboring communities to seek local solutions to temporary homelessness, instead of just sending people to Portland.

Shelter data from 2018 shows 77 people from South Portland accounted for 5,300 shelter bed nights, and 89 people from Westbrook accounted for almost 4,000 bed nights.

Jennings said other communities could even be paying for hotel rooms as temporary housing, given they could be reimbursed by the state.

Since the beginning of 2018, the city has used overflow space at its General Assistance office 84 times, 45 so far this year. Geyer said 10 of those uses came in January to quarantine a flu victim from others.

Closing the overflow spot would save $45,000 in staffing costs, but councilors wanted reassurance no one in need would be turned away.

“Simply saying we won’t open the shelter does not reduce the numbers,” Councilor Belinda Ray said.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall, 389 Congress St.


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