Portland's Homeless to Face Tougher Scrutiny as State Prepares to Tighten GA Requirements

PORTLAND, Maine – Next week, the city of Portland is expected to submit a formal response to a recent state audit that strongly criticized aspects of its General Assistance program.

That response will include a more thorough screening process of homeless shelter residents’ financial assets.

The city looks set to adopt a number of proposals put forth by city staff designed to address concerns raised by the state audit. Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has accused the city of mismanaging GA funds by using them on behalf of some long-term shelter residents who, despite being homeless, were found to have substantial sums of money in the bank.

The city is now proposing to address this issue. Beginning May 1, shelter residents will have to submit an eligibility form every month to ensure that they qualify for General Assistance money from the state. Currently, under a policy known as “presumptive eligibility,” all shelter residents qualify automatically.

The city will also no longer be able to use GA funds to cover operating expenses at its homeless shelters. Officials say that will cost more than $820,000 dollars. “I’m not in favor of us taking on any more costs,” says City Councilor Jon Hinck. “In my view, providing the shelters and public assistance, in general, is a partnership with the state, and if the state is pulling back from that partnership, then we cannot – the taxpayers of the city of Portland cannot – pick it up.”

“There is no easy answer as to where those dollars are going to be found,” says Portland Councilor Justin Costa, who sits on the City’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which discussed the proposed changes at its meeting on Tuesday. “We’re either going to have to significantly cut services to people in the city, some of our most needy citizens, or we’re going to be in the position of having to go to the local taxpayers because the state is no longer funding operations.”

City officials say the state’s demands put them in a difficult position, leaving them little choice but to comply. This is a concern for homeless advocates, like Mark Swann, executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center.

“Politics aside for a second, when a human being shows up at our doors with no place to sleep that night, I truly hope that the city continues to do the right thing and help that person,” Swann says.

He says policymakers need to have a serious discussion about how they’re going to address the funding challenges ahead. Case in point, he says, there’s only $380,000 in the state’s general fund to support the work of 42 homeless shelters across the state. “It’s nowhere near enough.”

And Swann says he wants to see the state set up a new fund to address this issue. He’s calling it the Compassion Fund.

State officials, meanwhile, say there should be widespread reform of the General Assistance program. David Sorensen is a spokesman with the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We believe strongly – the administration and the Department of Health and Human Services believe strongly – that regardless of the outcome of this review, the state must enact Gov. LePage’s proposal to reform GA reimbursement rates statewide, bringing fairness across all municipalities,” Sorensen says.

Administration officials have criticized the fact that Portland is responsible for consuming the lion’s share of GA spending – about 65 percent, a figure they want to see come down significantly. But city officials say the reason it does is because so many homeless people they serve come from outside of Portland, and 40 percent of them are immigrants.

As for the latest proposals to comply with the audit, Sorensen says the state will wait until it’s received the city’s formal response before issuing any comment.

The deadline is Monday, March 16.