DHHS audit prompts talks among social workers, city council

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Social workers are defending Portland’s homeless shelter programs, after the Department of Health and Human Services released an audit of Portland’s welfare program.

The audit, obtained by NEWS CENTER after a Freedom of Information Request, cited several violations.

The state claims Portland is not taking income or resources into account before granting general assistance. The audit found several people who use the city’s homeless shelters have tens of thousands of dollars in the bank.

A group of social service providers spoke with reporters Tuesday to provide some context to the audit. They said no one is staying in a homeless shelter to save money or game the system.

“Nobody is staying in shelters or languishing on the streets or in shelters for years and years sometimes to save money,” said Mark Swann, executive director of non-profit Preble Street.

Swann said two years ago, the Preble Street took a look at the top 30 users of city shelters. He said every single one of them was suffering from serious mental illness.

“It’s not just bumper stickers or headlines,” Swann said. “Poverty is complex. Homelessness is complex. Solutions to those issues are very complex.”

All of the social workers and doctors who spoke Tuesday had stories to share about clients who had some kind of income, but were so mentally ill they refused treatment and services. They said there is no way to force those clients to pay for services with their own money because their mental illness renders them incapable of comprehending their situation, and the shelters won’t turn them away.

The issue was discussed at Monday night’s Portland City Council meeting. Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the Public Safety Health and Human Services Committee, said this is a good opportunity to sit down and review Portland’s General Assistance program, but he v the state and the city should be working together.

“I think things work a lot better when partners in such an endeavor are not sniping at each other publicly and in the media, but rather sitting down together and saying, ‘How can we make things better?'” Suslovic said.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has said he will meet with the governor to discuss these issues. Portland’s Public Safety Health and Human Services Committee is adding the item to the agenda for its March 10th meeting.

NEWS CENTER reached out to the Portland department that runs the shelters. No one has responded to our requests for comment.