Portland considers changes to general assistance program, shelter consolidation

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — A city committee will consider changes to Portland’s general assistance program after a state audit found violations.

The state reimburses all cities and towns for a portion of general assistance spending. Portland includes the operating costs for its emergency shelter, but the state wants the city to bill based on each individual shelter user. That means making sure each shelter user qualifies for general assistance, and the state audit found Portland isn’t doing that.

At Tuesday’s Public Safety Health and Human Services Committee, city officials said that the administration is simply changing it interpretation of the law. Some of the councilors said it is a political attack to advance Gov. lePage’s budget and isn’t about a genuine effort to help the homeless.

City staff drafted a memo for Tuesday night’s meeting that outlined the changes that need to be made to be in compliance with state law. Those proposed changes indicate that the city will be tightening its belt when it comes to services for the poor and homeless.

You can read the memo outlining proposed changes here.

Starting May 1, shelter users would be required to fill out a monthly eligibility form to ensure that they qualify for general assistance. Anyone with money in the bank would be required to pay for services.

City staff estimate these changes would cost the city more than $800,000 a year. As a result, they are considering consolidating shelter services to save money.

Read more on the proposed shelter consolidation study here.

Preble Street would be a major player in that discussion as one of the largest social service providers in Portland. Executive Director Mark Swann said it’s clear the current system isn’t working, and both the city and the state should consider new ways to provide these services.

“There’s this idea that we are participating in and are happy to, to say, ‘Okay let’s start from scratch, what works best?'” Swann told NEWS CENTER. “And put all of our programs, all our resources on the table and figure out the best way to serve people, and maybe we can do some of those things in ways that save money as well.”

There has been discussion about reform on the state level as well. Swann says some homeless advocates have proposed paying for services for the homeless out of a separate fund called a Compassion Fund, instead of using general assistance dollars.

“The idea of a Compassion Fund would be to really to start from scratch and say, ‘Okay, what is the state’s responsibility? We know there is a local responsibility as well, and there’s a charitable responsibility also, but the state needs to play a role.”

The city has until March 16 to formally respond to the state’s audit.