The cost of providing emergency assistance to Maine’s poorest residents for housing, utilities, food and basic necessities has tripled in four years to nearly $43 million, fueled mostly by the increase in homelessness and housing insecurity triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers, who have so far covered the cost increases by using federal pandemic funding and surplus state revenues, are looking for ways to restructure the state’s General Assistance program and return it to its original role as a safety-net program of last resort.

“The General Assistance program is a critical resource for many, but has expanded beyond its appropriation, staffing and purpose,” according to a report completed last month by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “The program was not built to solve larger systemic issues such as the lack of affordable housing.”

Advocates say ongoing discussions between lawmakers and people involved with the program are overdue. Some have called for helping recipients move away from reliance on the program by helping them find housing or tapping longer-term aid programs, such as food assistance or rental subsidies.

“This is the most promising opportunity we have seen in many years,” Kathy Kilrain del Rio, an advocate with Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit that helps low-income people, told a panel of legislators on Wednesday. “Maine Equal Justice and its staff have been working on GA for decades, and the conversations happening in your committee now are so very needed.”

General Assistance provides short-term assistance for emergency shelter and basic necessities during times of crisis. It can include vouchers to cover rent for people facing eviction or heating oil or electricity for people with no money to pay for them. People receiving assistance must reapply every 30 days, or sooner, to continue receiving assistance – a requirement administrators say is designed to ensure people who need long-term support apply for other programs and do not rely on GA.


But a confluence of events in recent years has caused costs to skyrocket. In 2015, lawmakers restored eligibility for noncitizens seeking asylum who are legally present in the country but are prohibited from working under federal law for at least six months after filing their asylum claims. And in 2019, the year before the pandemic, lawmakers effectively made it easier to use GA funds to support homeless shelters.

Lawmakers, however, did not devote any new permanent funding for the program based on those changes, and didn’t do so even as costs ballooned after 2019.

When the pandemic began in 2020, emergency shelters filled or exceeded capacity, which also was reduced because of the need for social distancing, all of which prompted officials to rely on renting hotel rooms. Those rooms were largely funded through federal pandemic assistance that has since dried up even though the need for emergency shelter has not abated.

All of it occurred against the backdrop of a worsening housing shortage, which made it harder for people to find apartments or keep the ones they had.

Over the last five years, the GA costs have skyrocketed from $12.7 million in the 2019 budget year to $42.9 million in the last budget year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The largest driver of the increase was temporary housing such as hotels and emergency shelters – up nearly 1,200% from $2 million in 2019 to $25.8 million in 2023. Permanent housing costs – rent payments for people in danger of eviction – have increased 45% from $7.4 million to $10.7 million.


Cities and towns administer the GA program, although at least 70% of the costs are paid by the state. Service center communities that face the biggest cost burdens get as much as 90% reimbursement.

“Our municipalities are really not equipped at this point – and maybe at no point – to take on long-term chronic housing insecurity and homelessness issues,” said Rep. Michele Meyers, D-Eliot, Health and Human Services Committee chair. “We’ve seen the housing issue balloon and it’s now the largest aspect of what our municipalities are dealing with and they’re not equipped in any way.”

The ballooning cost could play into the political debate over the GA program when the Legislature reconvenes this winter. Maine Republicans, who are in the legislative minority, have sought ways to cut welfare rolls, primarily by adding working requirements for able-bodied adults. They say Maine’s benefits are a disincentive to work, while businesses struggle to find workers.


“That’s an astronomical increase,” House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said Wednesday. “To increase that much over inflation is not sustainable. I’d be interested to see how much of that increase can be attributed to the city of Portland. If it is a disproportionate amount as I suspect, then we as a state should take action to address it.”

Portland, Lewiston and Bangor provide the bulk of services and consume much of the GA spending, although people rely on General Assistance in smaller towns, too. It wasn’t clear Wednesday how much of the spending was in Portland or the other cities,  although Portland clearly accounts for a major share of the costs because homeless and low-income people come from around the state for the services the city provides.


While states across the country have faced the same general pressures during the pandemic-era, assistance programs vary and it’s not possible to compare costs state to state. Maine is one of 25 states with some form of a General Assistance program, the report states.

Over the spring and summer, DHHS officials held listening sessions with municipalities, tribes, and community-based organizations that included groups working with asylum seekers and GA clients to solicit feedback and ideas for improving the program. It’s not clear yet what changes might be proposed to the Legislature as state officials are still gathering input.

Some called for the state to increase the amount of assistance allowed to catch up with inflation, not only for housing, but also for food and utilities. Many participants called for the state to reimburse more than 70% of the costs.

Some advocated for a separate assistance program for noncitizens and for more resources to help people find permanent housing, or keep it, so they don’t rely on GA.

While Gov. Janet Mills and lawmakers have made historic investments in affordable housing in recent years and are working to create more housing for people who are chronically homeless, Kilrain del Rio said the lowest-income Mainers are still falling through the cracks and end up needing General Assistance.

“Those large numbers of the lowest-income Mainers fall through the gap in existing housing supports, and their needs were not addressed by the housing investments in this most recent session,” Kilrain del Rio said.

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