PORTLAND, Maine — While it may not help everyone who needs it, the city will move forward with limited aid for asylum seekers after city councilors approved guidelines Monday night.
The $2.6 million Community Support Fund will be open to people who were receiving General Assistance vouchers in June, but face a loss of aid due to changes in state policy enacted in June 2014.
“We are living in real time with real people and I think this is an appropriate response,” Mayor Michael Brennan said after the unanimous vote to establish the program that will run through June 2016.
The program will be open to immigrants who have applied for asylum, have been in the country for less than a year, are parents or guardians and siblings of American-born children, or are unaccompanied children, but only if they were receiving vouchers in June.
The program will continue to provide full voucher benefits through this month for as many as 882 individuals, but next month will provide assistance only for housing.
City Manager Jon Jennings said housing costs comprise 70 percent of the aid. A fully funded program would require $.2 million, Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance added.
In an effort to try and stretch the funding, those eligible for the program must apply for work authorizations with the federal government within 60 days, and those who have already received work authorizations must find work within six months.
LaChance noted people who do get work may still require some aid, and was uncertain how the requirements could affect enrollment in the fund.
Councilors decided against dovetailing the eligibility requirements with a new state law that could extend General Assistance aid to asylum seekers and other immigrants deemed ineligible in the policy change made last year by state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
The intent is to be prepared for state reimbursements for General Assistance if the law stays on the books, but two variables affect its future.
The state law was one of 71 Gov. Paul LePage said he vetoed, but not before the Legislature said he missed the deadline to legally do so. LePage is now seeking an opinion from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The law may also be challenged by a citizen’s initiative to overturn it. Even if it is enacted, it would not go into effect until after the possible referendum.
“I don’t trust that we will see in the near future any money from the state for this,” Councilor David Brenerman said. “I suspect we have to move forward with what we can do.”
Brenerman and Councilor Justin Costa proposed the fund, using money previously allocated by councilors to help ineligible General Assistance recipients and the other city funds freed up when the Legislature provided a larger-than-expected education subsidy.
During a 25-minute public hearing on the fund requirements, councilors were urged to widen the standards to meet the state law and find ways to provide vouchers for food and medicine that will not be covered.
“We need you to be holistic in your thinking and realize any decisions you make affect families and children,” Preble Street Associate Director Jon Bradley said.
Brenerman said more support will be needed to make that happen.
“We hope the community will step forward to provide these people with food and medicine,” he said.