PORTLAND, Maine - Homeless advocates and health professionals in Portland are accusing state officials of using mentally ill homeless people as political pawns.
This follows an audit by the Department of Health and Human Services that heavily criticized the city after finding several residents of a homeless shelter had significant amounts of money in the bank.
The audit was carried out over two days last month to examine the city of Portland's administration of its General Assistance, or GA, program. The state provides General Assistance reimbursements to cities that provide shelter to the homeless.
As part of the review, the finances of 30 long-term residents at two of Portland's shelters were scrutinized. DHHS found 13 of those people had at least $20,000 in the bank. One person - who stayed at the shelters the longest - had more than $92,000 in his accounts, while another was reported to have had more than $160,000 in liquid assets.
"This is about compliance with the law and the regulations around the General Assistance Program," says Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. "I think it's important to establish that the General Assistance program is a temporary emergency assistance program that requires eligibility to be determined every 30 days."
Mayhew says the city is in clear violation of legal and regulatory requirements in the way it determines shelter eligibility. "The fundamental concern is related to the city's compliance pertaining to eligibility determinations," Mayhew says.
"Nobody is staying in shelters or languishing on the streets or in shelters for years and years sometimes, to save money," says Mark Swann. Swann is executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center, which operates homeless shelters in Maine's biggest city.
These shelters, Swann says, are not the sort of places someone would deliberately choose to stay in as a way to save money. "The largest shelter that we're talking about more than any is the Oxford Street shelter, which is mats on the floor, 6 inches apart from strangers, clutching all your belongings," he says. "Two-hundred people in situations, sometimes as much as 300 people."
Swann was joined by advocates and health workers for a news conference Tuesday afternoon in response to the state's audit. Most shelter residents, he says, have serious mental illness and need help, regardless of whether they have money in the bank.
"The state has a huge responsibility to serve those people, and yet the state has chosen to pay attention to, and call out the shelter, really the only place that's open, available and accessible to these people to keep them safe," Swann says. He says the state has failed to live up to its responsibilty to serve people with serious mental illness.
Dr. Ann Lemire is with Portland's Division of Public Health and has worked with the city's homeless population for more than 20 years. She says it's often hard to help mentally ill homeless people because they sometimes suffer from delusions and refuse to be put into housing.
"I could give you many, many stories of individuals who, actually, in the wintertime, would be so afraid of someone watching them, they would be outside for tremendous periods of time," she says.
These people typically get assistance in the forms of disability checks. "But you could not very often get them to the help that they needed,. for many reasons," Dr. Lemire says.
State officials, meanwhile, say Portland needs to come up with a corrective plan to address the eligibility issue. The city has less than two weeks to respond.