Portland city councilors Monday began discussing the future of social service programs that serve the homeless and provide financial assistance to non-citizens.
With three of the nine councilors absent, staff members spent much of Monday’s workshop presenting information and answering questions.
Mayor Ethan Strimling said the discussion will continue Thursday, when the Finance Committee reviews the Health and Human Services budget.
The Portland Community Support Fund provides financial assistance to non-citizens, including asylum seekers, who are not eligible for the state’s General Assistance program. The policy has guaranteed for three decades that anyone seeking emergency shelter in Portland will be accommodated.
City Manager Jon Jennings has proposed a budget that would phase out the Community Support Fund over the next two years and effectively cap the number of single adults served at the Oxford Street Shelter at 229. That number includes 154 mats at Oxford Street and 75 mats at the Preble Street Resource Center, but would not include a second overflow space in the city’s General Assistance office, which is occasionally used now.
The budget proposal would not affect the Family Shelter, which relies on the Salvation Army gym for overflow space.
Acting Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said the city would save $40,000 to $45,000 a year in shelter staffing alone by no longer opening its GA office as overflow space for Oxford Street Shelter clients. Staff would not necessarily turn people away, but would quickly try to return them to their hometowns for help, she said.
“We have some of the most compassionate staff,” Dow said.
Some councilors seek changes at the state level. They hope Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will take administrative action to make more asylum-seekers eligible for General Assistance, and that the state Legislature will enact other GA-related bills.
Councilor Jill Duson said the state law changes are crucial for Portland. She suggested the city should mount a strong lobbying effort. “It might be time to not have it so quiet,” she said.
Councilor Belinda Ray said she is interested in looking at any policy changes that reduce the number of people seeking emergency shelter in Portland. But she didn’t feel comfortable capping the number of people before that occurs.
“I have a hard time contemplating shutting down (the second overflow) while it still appears to be necessary,” Ray said. “That won’t change the number of people who are in Portland seeking shelter.”
Portland has provided shelter to anyone in need since the late 1980s. At the time, a privately-run homeless shelter was closing, so advocates camped out in the plaza in front of City Hall before moving the tent city to Lincoln Park.
After two weeks of protest, former City Manager Robert Ganley ended the impasse by saying the city would “do its part” to shelter anyone in need and the shelter that triggered the protest eventually reopened with city funding. Council candidates have routinely reaffirmed that commitment during candidate forums hosted by Preble Street, a nonprofit social services agency.
Recognizing that homeless people naturally gravitate to urban areas, the state entered into a special billing arrangement with Portland in the 1980s, making it easier for Maine’s largest city to use General Assistance funds for shelter operations.
But Republican Gov. Paul LePage upended that agreement as part of his welfare reforms in 2015 and Portland has been struggling with funding those services ever since. Now financial eligibility must be determined for all shelter guests for the city to receive a state reimbursement.
“This was one of the dumber rule changes we have seen in a long time,” City Councilor Justin Costa said.
With planning underway for a new shelter, some councilors wonder how many people the city can afford to help.
Aaron Geyer, acting social services director, said 745 individuals from Maine communities other than Portland used a total of 34,397 bed nights in 2018, compared to 537 Portlanders using about 25,000 bed nights.
Only 55 percent of people staying at the shelter are eligible for General Assistance, Geyer said.
Portland has tried unsuccessfully to get other Maine towns to chip in for shelter costs.
Portland created the Community Support Fund in 2015. At the time, it looked like the state was going to prohibit non-citizens, including asylum seekers, from receiving General Assistance. LePage had won a court battle, arguing that Maine had no state legislation making asylum seekers eligible for the program. So, Portland created a local fund to help hundreds of people, including children, living in the city.
LePage was expected to hold that line by vetoing a bill that would explicitly make asylum seekers eligible for General Assistance for up to two years. But he botched the veto and the bill became law.
Portland continued to provide local aid to help people who were ineligible for the state program – primarily people whose visas had expired and who had not yet filed their application for asylum.
That fund was infused with $200,000 this year. It had been overspent by $35,000 through March, the city said.
Geyer said the fund helps roughly 350 people. He said the state would actually save money by opening up eligibility, because people would be able to live outside of Portland.
Currently, he said, many asylum seekers live in Portland because of the support fund. Once eligible for GA, they end up staying in Portland, where rents are higher than other communities, leading to higher costs for the state.
City Councilors Nicholas Mavodones, Brian Batson and Kimberly Cook were not at the meeting.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
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