Portland leaders defend DHHS audit of homeless shelters

PORTLAND (WGME) — Portland democrats and city leaders are defending the use of homeless shelters for people who may have money in the bank. This comes after a report shows some people staying in the city’s overnight shelters have thousands of dollars in assets. But city leaders say the people in that report are mentally ill and often delusional, and should not be turned away.

That DHHS audit found 13 of 30 people who stayed the longest, in Portland’s two city-run overnight homeless shelters, had at least $20,000 in the bank. Two had more than $90,000. Sen. Justin Alfond, (D) Portland, admits “We find the GA audit troubling.” And Governor LePage says initial findings show the city knew about the money, but billed the state anyway for reimbursements.

But Portland Mayor Michael Brennan says people in shelters have never been asked to prove they have no money, and says the department of health and human services never questioned that until this audit. Mayor Brennan says “We do have some people in the City of Portland who believe that their best option is to stay in a shelter, even though they have other resources available to them.”

Preble Street director Mark Swann says it’s ridiculous to think anyone would stay in a shelter because it’s free. He told us “Being homeless in Portland at the Oxford Street Shelter means sleeping on a thin mat on the floor, clutching all your belongings, inches away on both sides from strangers.” Who chooses this? Is someone really getting away with something by getting this mat to sleep on?”

Gary Lee is staying in a shelter. He says “No one would choose to be here if they had money, if they could understand that they had choices. But people with mental illness don’t have that.” The city does require that people provide proof of all household income before they get any General Assistance vouchers for rent or heating assistance. But they don’t require that proof at the shelter.

City leaders say that’s because people are here, not because they want to save a buck. It’s because they have nowhere else to go. Sen. Justin Alfond says “These are fellow Mainers who are struggling. And every decision and every action could mean a life or death scenario. There’s more to this story than just the numbers being spun by this administration.”

Glen Beckworth is currently staying at a shelter. He says “I see a lot of mental health issues.” Gov. LePage says his issue isn’t with people staying in shelters, but who pays for it. In a statement Friday, The governor says “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.”

Mark Swann says “It may well be that some of them had money in the bank. But if so, I’m certain that some of them didn’t even know they had money.” Portland leaders say they want to work with the governor on this, but say they were told the soonest he can meet with them is in four weeks. Portland City Councilor Ed Suslevic says if there are ways to tighten it up, they’ll do just that.