We should be angry about homelessness, not who paid for shelter stays

The sound bite was meant to shock and outrage: People with money are staying at a Portland shelter for years at a time, the Department of Health and Human Services said, pointing an angry finger at Portland officials.

Gov. Paul LePage has long been at odds with Portland over payments for social services. Now, he has an audit showing 13 of the "top stayers" at a city-run shelter each had more than $20,000 in savings. One had more than $160,000. The audit then questioned whether these people were in "need" of emergency accommodations.

"My quarrel is not with the people who stayed at the shelter," LePage said of the situation last week. "Mental illness often plays a role there. It’s a matter of who pays." His administration believes that Portland should pay (the shelter cost $1.7 million to run last year), not the state through General Assistance reimbursements.

The debate, though, shouldn’t be over who foots a homeless shelter bill. It should be over how best to provide treatment to and housing for people so they don’t spend nearly four years in a homeless shelter.

"Homeless shelters are evidence of our failures," said Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine.

Without supportive housing for those with severe mental illness, they frequently bounce between hospitals, jails and homeless shelters, ultimately costing taxpayers more than it does to provide housing. Ending this should be a priority.

The chronically homeless are frequent users of emergency services, crisis response and public safety systems (including jails), which tax government resources more than a night in a shelter. And, although they make up a small percentage of the overall homeless population, they account for 50 percent of shelter use.

In addition to running the Oxford Street Shelter, the state’s largest emergency shelter, Portland has put in place numerous programs to reduce homelessness. If someone stays at the center for seven days and has severe mental illness, they get intensive case management, which can include help with housing, employment, community involvement and other services. The city also identified 30 long-term stayers and, in 2014, helped 22 of them secure permanent housing. It is now working with a new group of 30 long-term stayers to do the same. The city also has programs to help the homeless find jobs.

Portland’s work with the homeless should be supported, not nickled and dimed.

For a quarter century, Portland, working with DHHS, has used a "presumption of eligibility," as spelled out in state statute, when people present themselves at the Oxford Street Shelter. When people show up at a shelter, they are presumed to need to stay there. Otherwise, they would be forced to sleep on the streets.

After years of audits that found the city in compliance with state standards, the latest DHHS audit says that Portland was not performing financial background checks on those staying in the city-run shelter. This expectation is unworkable, however, since clients often show up late at night, and there is often a long line to get in.

When the homeless – and other individuals – apply for benefits, there is a financial asset check, as there should be. The Social Security Administration appoints representative-payees for individuals deemed unable to manage their finances. Portland employs two representative-payees to manage the Social Security benefits of 400 city residents. These representatives cannot access assets other than Social Security benefits and must account for how the money is spent.

There is an implication in the outrage over Portland’s "monied" homeless that these people are holding on to their financial assets and sleeping on the cheap at the homeless shelter.

This defies logic. People at the shelter line up, sometimes for hours, to get a spot to sleep on a mat, inches from others. As many have asked: Who chooses this?

The LePage administration has tried to make this a debate about money. Instead, it’s a debate about people.

"A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members," is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

Is Maine a state that puts hurdles in front of helping its weakest members? Or is it a state that helps them, regardless of their condition?