Years in a Homeless Shelter, Despite Thousands in the Bank: One Man's Story

PORTLAND, Maine – A recent audit of Portland’s homeless shelters has highlighted what some state officials say is mismanagement of General Assistance funds. At issue is a city policy that allows some long-term shelter residents with substantial savings in the bank to access services.

Homeless advocates and city representatives say the state is oversimplifying a complicated situation that involves clients with mental illness. Tom Porter has the story of one of those clients who brings into focus both points of view.

Brandon – not his real name – died last August of liver disease at age 52. He had recently moved into his own apartment in a subsidized housing project. Before that, his primary residence was Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter. He lived there, on and off, for more than a decade.

Jennie Soares, a social worker at the Preble Street Resource Center, says it look a lot of persuasion to get Brandon off the streets “because he would often, at the end of a cold night, have his heavy bags with him, and try to sleep outside,” she says, “because he was afraid of staying at the shelter.” Because of the cramped and stressful conditions at the shelter, Soares says such fears are not uncommon.

Brandon also struggled with alcoholism. And, Soares says, as his health declined he was, like many homeless people, reluctant to accept medical help. “We’d notice that his wounds were seeping and he’d be followed by a trail of blood in the soup kitchen,” she says. “There would literally be blood coming out of his skin.”

Brandon had mental problems as well. But, as Caroline Fernandes explains, they were undiagnosed and untreated, which is also not uncommon in the homeless population. “So many of our folks, since they are service-resistant, we are unable to have diagnoses because we don’t have assessments of many of them,” Fernandes says.

Fernandes is a coordinator at Logan Place, the housing project where Brandon lived towards the end of his life. She says he often displayed delusional behavior, including violent descriptions of his experiences in the Vietnam War.

“And then we realized he was too young to be in Vietnam,” Fernandes says. “But he told very specific events of his times in Vietnam. There are all kinds of stories like that – very violent stories that we thought were truth, and then we realized, this is not reality.”

Fernandes says Brandon had little insight into his mental illness. He also, apparently, had little insight into his financial situation. Monthly disability checks piled up until he had $22,000 in the bank. That meant he did not qualify for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, when he moved into his Logan Place apartment.

That’s in contrast to his long-term stay at the Oxford Street Shelter, however. For that, the city of Portland was reimbursed by the state’s General Assistance fund, according to a basic formula: $24 per resident per night.

“They are presumed to be eligible that night because they are needing emergency shelter,” says Portland’s Health and Human Services Director Dawn Stiles. Stiles says “presumptive eligibility” is a long-established practice that continues as long as someone stays at a shelter. If the client seeks any other GA benefit at the shelter, then there is a full financial review.

But that practice of waiting is now under fire, after a state audit found 13 out of 30 long-term shelter residents had more than $20,000 in assets. The 30 shelter residents had not sought additional GA funds, but Stiles says the city was aware of their financial resources. That’s because they were judged to be mentally incapable of supervising their own finances, leaving it to municipal officials to manage their assets.

And, in fact, the city had these records on file. “Those are the records that the state looked at when they did their audit,” Stiles says.

State officials say this is exactly why GA eligibility should not go on indefinitely – especially when the city knows an individual has substantial assets.

Portland City Councilor Jon Hinck agrees that this is a valid concern. “It seems to me the goal with all our assistance should be to make sure that it helps people who are genuinely in need,” Hinck says, “and also qualify.” Hinck says eligibility standards should be applied to shelter residents soon after their first night.

But he’s also frustrated by the way the DHHS has acted in its dealings with the city. “I have here on my desk copies of correspondence from this administration and prior administrations saying the city of Portland was in compliance with all the regulations,” Hinck says.

While some have suggested that the regulations themselves are vague, and that General Assistance might not be the best way to reimburse shelters, Hinck says that, instead of going on the attack, state officials could have been more helpful by simply reaching out to the city to discuss the issue.

The City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee is due to discuss a response to the state’s General Assistance audit at its next meeting on March 10.