State cuts off aid checks to disabled
01/08/03
JANET CHRIST
On Feb. 1, about 2,700 disabled Oregonians with no other income will lose state checks of $314 a month.

The state's General Assistance Program is temporary aid for those waiting to be certified for monthly federal Social Security disability payments. The program is for adults who cannot work for a year and have liquid assets of less than $50. Recipients are receiving letters explaining that the program ends in January. In Multnomah County, the notices went out with their last checks.

The state Department of Human Resources cut the $2.8 million program in December as part of $28.4 million in cuts. This was part of the state's $112 million in general fund cuts made to balance the budget through June 30 because of declining revenue.

Elimination of the program is one of many state and local social, health, corrections and justice services cuts in place or expected in the next few months. The cash assistance is not part of the Legislative cuts that would be reinstated if voters approve Ballot Measure 28, the temporary income tax increase to restore some services.

Most of the people on General Assistance are mental health clients, said James McConnell, director of the Multnomah County Division of Aging and Disability Services. "So we expect quite a few of them to be on the street." The county division currently has 880 enrolled clients. McConnell said the cut also will mean the loss of several staff jobs.

"The county is in no position to backfill," said county Chairwoman Diane Linn. Officials just went through midyear budget cuts and have been asked to cut more for 2003-04.

"The state has made a policy decision, and we have no choice. . . . I'm sick about this," Linn said.

"Does it help us move forward toward economic recovery? I don't think it does."

Nor does the city have a solution. "That's what's real scary for everybody," said Bob Durston, who has administered housing programs for very low-income and homeless people. Now chief executive to city Commissioner Erik Sten, Durston said that the General Assistance cut is the most pressing and severe at the moment and that some advocates may try to pursue the issue in Salem this week.

"There are a lot of cuts being made that may make sense individually," he said, "but together it is a disaster."

Elizabeth Lopez, an administrator in the state's Department of Human Resources, said General Assistance will end unless the Legislature puts the money back. "I know of no other cash assistance program."

The issue is not on the agenda when the Legislature's Emergency Board meets Thursday and Friday in Salem. A member could bring it up as a nonagenda item, said John Britton, an analyst with the Legislative Fiscal Office. But he had not heard that anyone intends to do so.

Lopez said state numbers show 1,025 clients enrolled for General Assistance in the three county Portland area. People receive the benefits for an average of nine months, but clients can be in the program for 18 months before Social Security eligibility kicks in.

The federal government reimburses the state for the temporary cash payments made to those who get on the Social Security disability program. But Lopez said the state is not repaid for those who do not qualify or who become enrolled in another monthly aid program. And it is not reimbursed for costs of administering General Assistance. The result is recovery of 45 percent of the program cost from the federal government.

Aging and Disability Services offices in Multnomah County sent letters dated Dec. 31, 2002, telling clients they had received their last checks. "You can still get the Oregon Health Plan," the letters say, and suggest that people might be eligible for more food stamps in February.

Several of these people have found transitional housing through Northwest Pilot Project, a Portland nonprofit agency that seeks homes for homeless and very poor, often disabled or elderly people.

Susan Emmons, the agency's director, said it may be able to help as many as 75 clients for a while with rent from its emergency fund -- which is down to $60,000 through June 30. "But for how long?"
she said.

One of those the Pilot Project is helping is Suzette Lightner, 60, who has lived in a tiny room in the downtown west end since September. She has received General Assistance benefits since June.

Lightner became homeless in 2001, passing through shelters, she said. She doesn't relish a return to that life.

Right now, she says, "This is the best I can do," although she still hopes to some day find a quiet, nonstressful job -- like stuffing envelopes.

Lightner said she has worked as a caregiver and house cleaner. But she said she became allergic to dust -- an air cleaner hums in her room -- and she developed an eczemalike skin condition that periodically erupts on her hands and feet.

She also has a condition that she describes as her brain going "blank" when under stress. And medication controls a tendency to exhibit anger or violence, she said.

Lightner said she fears losing her small triangle-shaped room and her rental storage space for possessions that don't fit.

Lightner also worries about all the other people who will be cut off from General Assistance. "And it's not gonna solve the problem," she said. "But it's gonna cause a lot of problems." Janet Christ: 503-294-5032; janetchrist@news.oregonian.com

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