July 17, 2019
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Amid uproar over tents, Belfast officials say state policy limited what they could do for homeless people

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Allison Harrell, a Waldo County woman who is concerned about local homelessness, stands in the back room of All About Games in Belfast with some of the camping gear that has been donated to help people who need it.

Four sleeping bags, two tents, three coolers and a windbreaker.

Oh, and one firestorm about how Belfast deals with homeless people, spurring a feeling in the community that the city has been unfairly characterized by the media.

That is the net result of last week’s BDN report about a soon-to-be-evicted single mother in Belfast being offered a tent by the city, and an effort spearheaded by a Waldo County woman to get donations of tents, sleeping bags and other camping gear to help more homeless and housing insecure people. The reaction highlights confusion about how state and local officials can work together to help vulnerable people in an area where rural homelessness poses challenges different from those faced in larger cities.

The report, illustrated by a file photo from San Francisco and carrying a headline that some city leaders described as “sensationalist,” was widely read. Residents soon saw their city mentioned on Fox News, England’s The Guardian, The Daily Mail and other places.

It didn’t sit right.

“People are talking about this like we’re setting up refugee camps,” Councilor Neal Harkness said.

They weren’t.

On Wednesday, City Manager Joe Slocum released a statement detailing what the 6,800-person city does for people who become homeless. Belfast spends about $65,000 a year on the needs of people who qualify for various types of aid.

“None of that money is spent on tents,” Slocum wrote in the statement.

The city does, though, work with nonprofit groups and individuals that do provide tents. “These small amenities are seen as being better than nothing and can be set up with campgrounds — where some folks get part-time employment to offset their site cost — or in a relative or friend’s backyard where people still have access to toilets, bathing facilities and kitchens,” he wrote.

Allison Harrell, a Searsmont woman who is leading the push for donations of camping gear, said she was disappointed that far more people joined the fiery discussions on Facebook about homelessness, and the news coverage than dropped off extra tents and sleeping bags at All About Games in downtown Belfast. Still, the experience was clarifying.

“It surprised me that people seemed surprised that homelessness is an issue, that state funding is an issue,” she said. “It’s an issue that needs to be tackled from so many different levels. It’s not just a government problem — it’s a problem for the community.”

Nuts and bolts of giving help

Slocum would like people to better understand how Belfast helps people in need. Those who come to Belfast City Hall are asked to fill out an application for General Assistance, an aid program administered by municipal governments to provide financial support to people experiencing financial crises, but which is partially funded with state dollars.

Jodie Stout works as Belfast’s full-time General Assistance administrator, and if the city follows state regulations, it qualifies for 70 percent reimbursement of its General Assistance spending, Slocum said.

Those who qualify are entitled to limited financial benefits for such things as food, heat, electricity and rent. The maximum financial benefit the city is allowed to spend on housing is set by the state.

“The financial caps on housing benefits limit the number and volume of rental options available,” Slocum wrote. “If there are no housing units inside the city that fall within financial caps, then we help the applicant look for housing elsewhere. If that housing is in another community, we help with those expenses as well.”

If the person is homeless, Stout will provide names and phone numbers for shelters, none of which are located in Waldo County and some of which may not be suitable for a family with children. She will also share names and addresses of landlords who might have places to rent.

“We are always looking to hear if there are any vacancies in Belfast that fall within program guidelines, and we are thrilled when we find one for someone in need,” Slocum wrote.

Belfast’s approach to General Assistance, however, is colored by the city’s recent, negative experience with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. In 2017, the city had to pay about $100,000 to resolve a dispute with the department over General Assistance benefits, which led to the state taking “corrective action” against Belfast.

“I think that after we got stung by the state for them not being willing to reimburse us for significant amounts of money, we wanted to be very, very careful going forward, and I think we have been, not to spend money inappropriately,” Slocum said Thursday. “That’s why we’re in this situation.”

Uncertainty about the state policy

The city’s caution about spending too much money for General Assistance has been underscored by recent state policy not to reimburse communities that put people in hotel rooms in the summer unless they had a medical need.

Slocum said he has understood that for municipalities to be reimbursed by the state, the person has to be in an emergency situation, which previously has been defined as “life-threatening.”

“If we have an emergency, there are all kinds of things we can do,” he said. “But what DHHS has said is if it’s warm and summertime, there’s no danger. There’s no threat to somebody who is sleeping outside or in their car.”

That’s not the case anymore, according to Maine DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell. She said Thursday that General Assistance administrators previously had been told by the state that homelessness during the summer did not constitute an emergency. Last week, however, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill that includes “homelessness” in the laws governing emergency General Assistance. Slocum only learned about the new law Thursday, when an official at DHHS told him that it will go into effect in September.

According to Farwell, the new law means that there are no current seasonal limitations on emergency assistance for housing. If people qualify for emergency General Assistance according to the state’s criteria, a community can put them up in a hotel room in the summer and the state will reimburse for that.

Slocum said he welcomes the change, which would give the city another option to help people like the evicted single mother who was offered a tent. But it would lead to increases in the General Assistance budget for Belfast and other municipalities across the state, he said, and likely will not fix the problem entirely. Summer on the coast is the busiest, most expensive time of year to rent a hotel room and the hardest time to find an apartment.

“There’s more people using more residential facilities in the state of Maine in the summer than any other time of year,” he said. “It makes our problem more difficult.”

Finding solutions

Some in the community, including Harrell, are trying to find a silver lining to the sudden burst of attention on homelessness. She is going to continue looking for camping gear that will be passed on to Stout and those who need it. People can keep dropping it off at the game store through August.

“I am glad that people have been talking, and ultimately it has inspired a lot of discussion,” she said. “I hope that means when bigger efforts come along, the community is ready to give it legs.”

It’s hard to know right now what those efforts might be, but she and others concerned about homelessness are forming a grassroots group to raise awareness and talk about solutions. Homelessness may look different in Belfast and Waldo County than it does in urban centers, but it’s here nonetheless.

“It is important for people to have the courage to speak out,” Harrell said.

Slocum said that he is looking forward to seeing what the group concerned with homelessness comes up with. Right now, no matter what last week’s flurry of media reports said, the city is trying to be creative and thoughtful in its approach to the issue.

“We’re working with diapers. We’re working with food. We work with tents, telephone calls, landlord lists, referrals, continuing education. It’s a lot,” the city manager said. “We want to do it well. We want to do it right.”



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