Possible elimination of General Assistance shocks advocates for homeless

Capitol cleaning
Maintenance workers clean the exterior of the Minnesota State Capitol dome on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010. The work is part of a $4 million, seven-month project to repair the dome.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Advocates for the homeless are scrambling to respond to the unexpected news that a welfare program for disabled adults may be eliminated in a conference committee Thursday evening.

The General Assistance program is the only source of income for about 20,000 Minnesotans. It provides up to $203 a month for childless adults who cannot work because of an illness or disability. Many of the program's recipients are homeless and are awaiting approval for Social Security. They depend on the program to pay for medication co-payments, bus fare, and basic items like toothpaste and soap.

Advocates said they had assumed that the program would be protected based on conversations with lawmakers in recent weeks. Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, had included $104 million in funding for General Assistance and two emergency assistance programs in the House version of the Health and Human Services budget.

However, the Senate version eliminated all three programs and replaced them with $89 million in block grants to counties.

"We were holding out hope that the House side would win on this," said Patrick Ness, policy director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "But it very much felt like this program is slipping through our fingers in the last 24 hours."

Ness said he received indication from members of the conference committee that the cuts to General Assistance would be adopted on Thursday. Abeler, reached via legislative assistant Andy Leer, declined to confirm that the program will be eliminated. However, Leer said the committee plans to complete work on the bill Thursday night, and "it's likely" the program will be eliminated.

Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth), who sits on the conference committee, said he opposes the cuts, but he expects the Republican-controlled committee will adopt them.

"You're talking about a part of our population that probably is never going to make it, and they're never going to get back to work because of their illnesses and their other problems," he said. "And the question is do we want to let them die in the street or do we want to feel that we have a responsibility to take care of them."

The Republicans on the committee did not immediately return calls for comment.

"Rep. Abeler is doing his best," Ness said. "I think this is difficult on him. I believe he cares, and we're asking him to step up and do the right thing."

Republican lawmakers have said that deep cuts are needed to fix the state's projected $5 billion deficit. Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed raising taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans to help balance the budget, but Republicans have opposed the tax increases, arguing that the tax hike would hurt the economy.

An advocacy group led by homeless adults met last night to strategize a response. Many of the organizers receive General Assistance, and they said they don't know how they'd pay for basic hygiene items or bus fare if the money was cut.

Thaddeus Tyler has been receiving the monthly stipend for five months while he applies for Social Security. Tyler, who is 53, became disabled after being severely beaten with a shovel. He now has difficulty speaking and relies on a walker to get around.

He said if he lost his monthly stipend, he wouldn't be able to afford the copayments on his medications. "I just don't know what I'll do with no funds or nothing coming in," he said. "I can't hardly walk. Nobody ain't going to hire me."

Social service agencies said replacing the program with block grants will make it difficult to provide consistent services to low-income adults. One county could decide to use the funds for one-time emergency help, while another might continue to provide the $203 monthly stipend, said Cathy Heying, an organizer with St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis.

"An inconsistency in services is bound to happen," she said. "If Hennepin County decides we're going to keep providing $203 a month and Ramsey County says we're going to do $50 a month, then presumably there will be an influx of people moving from one county to another."

She added, "I think it's fair to assume that many people will get less than what they're currently getting."

The Department of Human Services has also raised concerns about the Senate plan. In a letter sent to Abeler and Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie), DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jenson said the block grant program "will significantly reduce the number of people who can be served, resulting in increased homelessness for those unable to access assistance."

Organizers said they plan to mount a public campaign to raise awareness of the cuts, but will be relying on the governor to make sure the program isn't eliminated.

"I think the governor has taken a firm stance on draconian cuts like this and that he is not willing to pass a budget that will decimate peoples' lives," Ness said. "These cuts would fall into that category."

The DFL governor's budget includes funding for General Assistance and other emergency assistance programs. Dayton spokesperson Katie Tinucci said the governor is waiting for the Republican-controlled Legislature to produce a final budget.

"The governor hasn't promised to veto anything," she said. "He's been very careful to not promise any vetoes. What he's said over and over is that he wants to see the entire budget in context to see how everything fits together."

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