LePage, Portland, Homeless Advocates Battle Over General Assistance

Posted on March 8, 2015. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Sen. Justin Alfond, Sen. Anne Haskell, Rep. Mark Dion, Rep. Diane Russell, Rep. Drew Gattine , Rep. Peter Stuckey, Rep. Erik Jorgensen, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, Portland City Council Ed Suslovik, Preble St ED Mark Swann, and many others at 2/27/15 Oxford St Homeless Shelter press conference.

Sen. Justin Alfond, Sen. Anne Haskell, Rep. Mark Dion, Rep. Diane Russell, Rep. Drew Gattine , Rep. Peter Stuckey, Rep. Erik Jorgensen, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, Portland City Council Ed Suslovik, Preble St ED Mark Swann, and many others at 2/27/15 Oxford St Homeless Shelter press conference.

At the end of the coldest February on record in Maine, political leaders and homelessness advocates held a press conference in Portland to discuss the needs of some of the region’s most needy and address the attacks by the LePage administration regarding the city’s spending of General Assistance monies.

A reminder: this is part of an ongoing legal battle between Portland/ Westbrook and the state over GA funds.

    Alfond, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and others on hand at the shelter Friday said they can explain why Portland seems to have an outsized share of the state’s General Assistance allocation, but that they can’t get a prompt audience with LePage or DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to discuss it.

    “We want the coordinated attacks on Portland to end, and the work to make our social services better to begin,”
    Alfond said, pointing out that Portland is not only an “outlier” in its distribution of General Assistance funds but also in that it represents an outsized share of the state’s economy.

    Alfond acknowledged Friday the audit was “troubling” and that Portland’s city officials and state representatives were eager to meet with the administration to discuss ways the city could better administer General Assistance. Brennan said he called the governor’s office on Monday to set up an appointment to discuss the audit.

    “I thought it was urgent, but the first date they gave me [for a meeting] was the end of March,” Brennan said Friday. “Obviously, it’s not as urgent to them as it is to us.”

Governor LePage immediately fired back and issued the following statements via a press release:

    “My quarrel is not with the people who stayed at the shelter,” said Governor LePage. “Mental illness often plays a role there. It’s a matter of who pays. The City of Portland knew these people had this money in the bank, but they decided to bill the taxpayers anyway for years’ worth of welfare reimbursement. Municipalities complain about losing revenue sharing, but then I see abuse like this. When municipalities set priorities that unfairly burden Maine property taxpayers, it’s hard to have sympathy for them. Tax relief should go directly to the property taxpayer, not to fund more government. That’s why my tax reform plan gives money directly to the Maine people by tripling property tax fairness credits, doubling the homestead exemption for those over 65 and significantly lowering income tax rates. The most recent news out of Portland shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it serves as an example of why Maine needs real tax reform.”

This weekend, State Senator Anne Haskell (D-Portland) responded to the governor and administration via the Democratic radio address:

    At 8 p.m. last night it was 12 degrees. And it’s March–not January. Together we’ve experienced one of the longest, most frigid, and snowiest winters in history.

    Good Morning. This is State Senator Anne Haskell of Portland. And, I don’t really want to talk about the weather. But I do want each of us to stop for a second and think about a time this winter: Think about the ten minutes it took you to walk from your office to your car on a blustery cold day. Your cheeks froze. Your fingers and toes hurt and you couldn’t wait to seek shelter from the wind.

    What if you didn’t have a home. If you didn’t have a place where you could crank the heat, pull up the blankets, and settle in with a cup of tea.

    What if, at sun down, you had stand in line for hours with the hopes–not the guarantee–that you could get a mat to sleep on at a shelter. A mat, by the way, that is only three inches thick. A mat that is placed in an open room–flanked on each side by strangers–only five inches from you. Clutching all that belongs to you, in a bag or a backpack.

    Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street Homeless Shelter: We are just trying to keep people alive

    Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street Homeless Shelter: We are just trying to keep people alive

    Mark Swann, the executive director at Preble Street in Portland, said, one day this winter, there were 282 people who showed up for one of the 142 mats. The math on this one is easy: 140 people were left to find shelter elsewhere that night. Some slept on the floor of the soup kitchen down the street. Others, had to sit up in chairs all night at city offices. And, a few others waited at the shelter–hoping a mat would open up. One person waited 11 hours; only to lay his head for two hours before the morning came, and the shelter closed for the day.

    Who chooses this?

    The answer is, nobody.

    Nobody chooses to be homeless. Nobody chooses to be mentally ill. Not one of the 282 people who lined up at the Oxford Street Shelter that night was trying to get away with something. Nobody working at the shelter or the city who is trying to provide life-saving shelter is trying to get away with something.

    At its core, this service of providing EMERGENCY shelter is serving the most basic and fundamental and crucial needs of humanity.

    Yet, in recent weeks, it’s become a political football. The LePage administration has attempted to garner salacious headlines by vilifying the people who utilize the shelter, and also those who provide the service.

    It’s not an easy story to tell. Why? Because we are talking about mental illness. We are talking about diseases like Schizophrenia.

    Recently the City of Portland studied 30 of the so-called “long stayers” at the shelters. What did they find? All of them, 100% had serious and persistent mental health issues–often untreated. Some had money in the bank. Some even had thousands of dollars in the bank.

    What does this mean?

    It could mean many things.

    For some, it means that perhaps a special account was set up by family members to put money aside for them. Perhaps intended to pay for things like dental and medical care.

    For some, it could be the remnant of another time in their life–before they got sick.

    For all, it is money that–because of their psychosis, they are unable or unwilling to use.

    DSC_0132They are not staying at homeless shelters to save a buck. They are staying there because they believe staying at a shelter is the best option available to them.

    And…most importantly, they are not numbers on someone’s spreadsheet. They are our brothers and sisters, our parents, our aunts and uncles. They are our fellow human beings–living much more difficult lives than we can imagine.

    Mental illness is not easy to understand. But it is something that we all need to take a closer look at. We can’t be afraid of it. And most of all, we can’t play the blame-game–that serves no purpose other than to distract and delay from a meaningful solutions-based dialogue.

    Long before this administration, the mental health system in Maine has been broken. The overflowing shelters in our state is one symptom of that–as are our jails–that are also overflowing with people who would benefit more from mental health intervention and treatment.

    As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former member of the state’s Criminal Justice Committee, I can tell you that there are dozens of lawmakers who are interested in solving this problem and helping our fellow Mainers who are suffering. But the first step toward a solution has to be one that is honest.

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