Portland Officials Defend Handling of General Assistance Funds

PORTLAND, Maine – Elected officials and homeless advocates held a news conference in Portland this morning to defend the city’s administration of General Assistance funds.

A recent state audit accused the city of mismanaging GA funds, after finding that more than a dozen residents at one of the city’s homeless shelters had more than $20,000 in the bank.

In the first formal response by city officials to the state audit, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said he was ready and willing to work with the state on the General Assistance issue. He also expressed surprise that the Health and Human Services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, sought no input from the city when it conducted its recent review.

“Never once did she or her staff call and say ‘Why is your spending in General Assistance going the way that it’s going? Why are you ‘consuming 65 percent of the General Assistance costs?’ ” Brennan said. “Never once called and asked us.”

Flanked by other city officials, state legislators and homeless advocates outside the Oxford Street shelter, Brennan said the reason that Portland uses the lion’s share of the state’s GA funds is that most of the people it serves come from outside the city, and 40 percent of them are immigrants.

Brennan and others also say the state’s audit fails to recognize that all of the long-term shelter residents suffer from serious mental illness and have nowhere else to go. Glen Duckworth has been living at the Oxford Street shelter for two months. He says living conditions there are unpleasant and cramped.

“Just the simple things in life, like getting a shower or going to the bathroom, you have a line, 15 or 20 minutes long – just for easy things,” Duckworth says.

Duckworth hopes to move out soon into his own accommodation. But other residents, he says, are not so lucky. “I see a lot of mental health challenges – people I don’t know if they’ll ever get out of here,” he says. “I think the state of Maine needs to step up and do something different.”

“If someone shows up here at the emergency shelter, waits in line, hangs out in the cold to sleep on a mat 18 inches from their neighbors, they are presumed to be eligible for emergency shelter only,” says City Councilor Ed Suslovic. Suslovic says this policy of “presumed eligibility” means clients are not required to provide any information about their personal finances when they check into the shelter, no matter how many times they go back there.

He says the DHHS has not had a problem with this longstanding practice, until now. “The state has never asked us to do a complete asset check at night when people are lined up here to go into the shelter,” Suslovic says. Suslovic – who chairs the city’s Health and Human Services Committee – says that for any other GA benefit, clients would have to submit to a full asset and eligibility check.

Mark Swann is executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center, which operates homeless shelters and other resources for Portland’s homeless population. General Assistance, he says, is not the ideal way to fund emergency shelters.

“It’s meant for individuals in the form of vouchers for emergency food and emergency rent – that’s what it’s for. I agree with that,” he says. “But it’s one of the only funding streams we have.”

To ease the burden on emergency shelters, Swann proposes the establishment of a new state fund. “Let’s call it the ‘State of Maine Compassion Fund,’ ” Swann says. “The state needs to acknowledge the importance of emergency shelters as a crucial, absolutely crucial component of the safety net, and fund them accordingly. The State of Maine Compassion Fund can do that.”

State officials, meanwhile, maintain that it was wrong for the city of Portland to bill taxpayers on behalf of shelter residents who were known to have large bank balances – money which could be used to find them other accommodation.

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen declined to go on tape for this story, but did issue a statement demanding to know why the city has been so comprehensively mismanaging the GA program and what will be done to fix it.

The statement says the department is “committed to the governor’s proposed GA reform to eliminate the incentive for Portland or any city to spend so recklessly.”