Short Relief: GA in Portland may fall short of the law

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I read the law regarding General Assistance and the state Department of Health and Human Services audit report on Portland’s program. Here’s what I learned.

Maine’s General Assistance program is a partnership between the state and municipal governments that provides assistance to the needy. It is intended to provide basic necessities for defined needs during a limited period of time. Those basic necessities are food, clothing, shelter, utilities and non-elective medical services. GA is not intended to be a general welfare program.

General Assistance is jointly funded by the state and municipalities. So long as it complies with program requirements, once a municipality spends more than a minimal threshold amount (.0003 of its property valuation), the state pays 90 percent of the cost. GA has grown from $8.9 million in 2004 to over $18 million in 2014. The state share has grown from 63 percent in 2004 ($5.6 of a total $8.9 million) to 72 percent in 2014 ($12.9 of a total $18 million).

Applicants must be residents of the municipality where they apply or be homeless. They must be needy in the sense that their resources are less than the level of assistance established by the municipality. Beyond that, each municipality establishes its own standard of eligibility and assistance sufficient to maintain health and decency, up to a maximum that is related to the fair market rent in the municipality.

Applicants must apply in writing and must provide all information necessary to determine eligibility. They must disclose all forms of income including government benefits and all potential available resources. They must use what income they have for their basic necessities before applying for assistance.

GA is administered by municipalities. They are supposed to examine public records and contact sources to verify an applicant’s eligibility. If an applicant qualifies, their municipality may grant assistance for 30 days. If the recipient’s situation improves during that period, the municipality is supposed to re-assess their eligibility

If an applicant is in an emergency situation and requires immediate assistance, and the municipality determines that the applicant will probably be eligible for assistance, it may issue temporary assistance pending full verification. The municipality is not supposed to authorize further benefits until it has fully verified the applicant’s eligibility.

Portland’s spending on GA has increased faster than other municipalities and has nearly doubled since 2009. The city spent a total of $10 million in 2014, 81 percent of which was paid for by the state. That represented 63 percent of the money that the state spent on GA all year. Portland spent $750 per person for its 13,350 individuals in poverty during 2014. That was more than 2 1/2 times the next highest rate of spending, in Bangor. Bangor spent $287 for each of its 7,560 individuals in poverty.

Portland reports that about 30 percent of its GA recipients are Portland residents, 30 percent are residents of the state or country, and 40 percent are visa holders seeking asylum. Federal law provides that unqualified aliens are not eligible for public benefits unless state law affirmatively provides that they are.

In January, DHHS reviewed Portland’s GA program. It accessed the electronic system that Portland uses to determine eligibility and to store case file information, as well as paper case files, and supplemental information with respect to 90 cases. The department also interviewed several administrators.

On the basis of that sample, DHHS found that Portland homeless shelters were taking emergency applications for general assistance. The shelters were not completing the applications or referring them to Portland for determination. Rather, they were presuming the applicants eligible for assistance without consideration of their needs or assets, and effectively qualifying them for assistance in perpetuity.

As a result, Portland was not correctly determining eligibility for assistance of persons in shelters and was providing assistance to a substantial number of persons who were clearly ineligible.

For example, of the top 30 city shelter users, based on the number of bed-nights, at least 13 had more than $20,000 in the bank. Of those, the person with the greatest number of bed-nights in 2013 had $92,000 in the bank. Another had as much as $161,000 in liquid assets.

At least 60 people who stayed at least one night in the Oxford Street Shelter in 2014 were receiving government benefits. Many of those had as much as $50,000 in the bank.

By itself, the finding that people receiving emergency assistance in fact have substantial resources is incongruous. The greater concern is that this finding may be a sign the assistance system is not performing its function according to law.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.