PORTLAND, Maine – Portland Democrats and social services leaders came out swinging Friday morning, saying a recent state audit claiming the city mismanages its General Assistance program is part of a "coordinated attack" on the liberal city by Maine’s conservative governor and his administration.
State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, led a news conference outside the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, where he and other local officials said disproportionately high General Assistance payouts in Portland could be traced to cases of mental illnesses or influxes of new immigrants, not careless spending by city staff.
The news conference came in reaction to recent and steady criticism of Portland’s distribution of General Assistance funds by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, which this week released an audit showing 13 of the city’s most frequent shelter users each having more than $20,000 in liquid assets.
The audit’s revelation that individuals with money in the bank were tapping resources set aside for needy individuals and families came on the heels of previous announcements by the Department of Health and Human Services that Portland spends more than 10 times as much in General Assistance funds as Lewiston and Auburn combined, despite having similar populations and poverty numbers.
General Assistance provides last-resort aid to people in crisis who do not qualify for other public assistance. Towns and cities administer the program and are partially reimbursed by the state.
Total state spending for General Assistance is estimated to be $13 million for the current fiscal year.
Alfond, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and others on hand at the shelter Friday said they can explain why Portland seems to have an outsized share of the state’s General Assistance allocation, but that they can’t get a prompt audience with LePage or DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to discuss it.
"We want the coordinated attacks on Portland to end, and the work to make our social services better to begin," Alfond said, pointing out that Portland is not only an "outlier" in its distribution of General Assistance funds but also in that it represents an outsized share of the state’s economy.
Alfond acknowledged Friday the audit was "troubling" and that Portland’s city officials and state representatives were eager to meet with the administration to discuss ways the city could better administer General Assistance. Brennan said he called the governor’s office on Monday to set up an appointment to discuss the audit.
"I thought it was urgent, but the first date they gave me [for a meeting] was the end of March," Brennan said Friday. "Obviously, it’s not as urgent to them as it is to us."
City Councilor Ed Suslovic – chairman of the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee – told reporters the number of asylum seekers and visa holders drawing upon General Assistance funding in the city has exploded from 296 in 2011 to 970 in 2014, accounting for the majority of the city’s overall increase during that time.
Those newcomers must often wait months for federal authorization to work in the U.S., he said, leaving General Assistance as the only means to keep them fed and housed until they can become contributing members of the local economy.
"People are coming to Portland because of the economic opportunities," Suslovic said after the morning news conference. "There are jobs here."
He said the city reduced its number of all other General Assistance clients from 3,557 to 2,594 over that same time period, attributing the reduction to Portland’s aggressive approach to individual counseling and finding permanent housing for frequent shelter users.
Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association are suing the state over LePage’s decision last year to cancel General Assistance reimbursement to communities that provide aid to undocumented immigrants.
Mental illness and emergency shelters
Regarding the shelter users with more than $20,000 apiece in the bank, Mark Swann, executive director of the homeless service provider Preble Street, said Friday those were largely isolated instances involving people suffering from serious mental illnesses.
"There’s a whole other side to this story the governor and his administration are leaving out," Alfond said.
Swann said shelter users sleep on thin mats, just inches away from strangers. Those who don’t get in line early enough for the mats must sleep on the floor at the Preble Street soup kitchen or in chairs in city offices.
"Who chooses this? Is anyone getting away with anything by getting a thin mat to sleep on?" Swann said. "Some of them didn’t even know they had money in the bank. Other people were dealing with such psychosis and mental illness they didn’t know how to access it."
Swann said the state has reduced its funding for emergency overnight shelters from $500,000 in 1987 to $380,000 per year now, and that the money is distributed to 42 shelters statewide. He agreed that General Assistance wasn’t intended to cover shelter stays, but the state needs to set up a more adequate standalone emergency shelter funding program – what he called a State of Maine Compassion Fund – if it wants to reduce the General Assistance burden. Swann said Portland’s high General Assistance numbers are a better indicator of the state’s inability to provide services for mentally ill people than of any mismanagement at the city level.
"A beautiful elderly woman named Diane sat outside our soup kitchen in a lawn chair for a decade waiting for her son to pick her up," he recalled, saying the woman suffered from schizophrenia, delusions and sometimes slipped into a catatonic state.
Swann said she stayed in shelters and ultimately died of breast cancer because she never had access to adequate health care.
"People have the misconception that we choose to come here. People have different reasons for being here," said Gary Lee, a local man who became homeless and started staying in the city’s shelter after developing depression. "Some have mental illnesses. Some have lost their jobs. I talked to a man this morning who lost his job, his truck broke down and he got cancer.
"I’ve laid next to a man who thought he was Hitler’s grandson," he said. "I’ve laid next to another person who thought the government was spying on him and was after him. These are the worlds people are living in."
But David Sorensen, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that Portland officials are missing the point when they account for the high General Assistance totals by pointing to cases of mental illness.
"The average stay of the 13 individuals in question was 1,392 nights," Sorensen said. "That’s almost four years. Mental health is certainly a major issue, and many of these people could have been suffering from it. The problem is not that they’re using the shelter, the problem is that Portland is billing taxpayers for their stays when the city knows they have these high-balance bank accounts.
"There is simply no excuse for that," he said. "Portland knows who these individuals are with significant assets."
In a prepared statement Friday, LePage said highlighting concerns about the mental health of people who stayed at the shelters deflects attention from what he believes to be the real problem: who pays for the services.
"My quarrel is not with the people who stayed at the shelter," he said. "Mental illness often plays a role there. It’s a matter of who pays. The city of Portland knew these people had this money in the bank, but they decided to bill the taxpayers anyway for years’ worth of welfare reimbursement. Municipalities complain about losing revenue sharing, but then I see abuse like this. When municipalities set priorities that unfairly burden Maine property taxpayers, it’s hard to have sympathy for them."
Sorensen added that DHHS spent nearly $5.16 million in 2014 on programs dedicated to housing mentally ill people in Portland – an amount nearly eight times as much as the next largest city, Lewiston, and three times as much as Maine’s third largest city, Bangor.
He said that $5.16 million, distributed through the state’s Bridging Rental Assistance Program and Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, among other avenues, comes above and beyond the $10 million in General Assistance distributed by the city.
LePage is pursuing a measure that would change the state’s General Assistance reimbursement formula.
The state reimburses each city or town 50 percent up to a certain threshold, then reimburses for 90 percent of the General Assistance distribution beyond that point. Under the governor’s proposal, the state would reimburse each municipality 90 percent of its General Assistance dispersal until it reaches 40 percent of its previous six-year average, after which the state would drop its reimbursement level to 10 percent.
While the change would benefit cities and towns that distribute relatively low amounts of General Assistance, front-loading the reimbursements, Portland would likely lose as much as $6 million in annual reimbursements if it continued to disburse the benefits as it currently does.
In addition to Alfond, six other state lawmakers representing Greater Portland communities attended the Friday news conference, as well as several members of the Portland Board of Public Education.