Commentary

Halsey Frank: Taking on more than Portland can handle

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Last week, while driving toward the peninsula on Outer Congress Street around Craigie Street, I passed a seemingly able-bodied woman standing in the middle of the street panhandling with a sign that read, “homeless and disabled.” There was no median strip. (In 2015, Portland lost a lawsuit over restricting panhandling in median strips in the interest of safety.) There was a road work site nearby with cones and flaggers who were regulating traffic. 

It was emblematic of a trend that has been going on for years, with more people panhandling in more places in and around Portland, notwithstanding Portland’s generous policy regarding government benefits. Portland doesn’t seem to have made much progress with regard to the panhandling situation before taking on another significant challenge.

The same week, Portland’s interim city manager, Danielle West, postponed presenting the city’s budget to the council. She did so in order to see how the state responds to a request for greater financial assistance. The city needs more money to deal with the influx of homeless persons and of asylum seekers from the Southwest border. In a memo to the mayor and council, West wrote that the city was in a dire situation and unable to provide for the hundreds of new arrivals that it was receiving. 

West noted that the city has been receiving nearly 100 individuals per week and housing them in hotel rooms. The Press Herald reported that, in March, 323 of those were individuals seeking asylum. This may be Portland’s share of people crossing the Southwest border that the Biden Administration has been distributing around the country, however discretely.

In a letter to state legislators appealing for help, West and mayor Kate Snyder noted that the city is currently housing 1,251 individuals. The Press Herald reported that the number of people needing emergency shelter nightly is about 1,500.

City manager West projected that the annualized cost of providing overflow hotels to those who have already arrived will exceed $44 million. In the letter, West and Snyder reported that the city has actually spent a total of $19,148,829 on General Assistance (GA) through February, about two million more than it spent in all of 2021. I understand that to include more than housing.

General Assistance is assistance in the form of vouchers for basic needs such as rent, food, medication, fuel, utilities, and other essential services. Eligibility is a function of not having enough income or resources to meet basic needs. The residency requirement is minimal: an applicant only needs to be present in the place where they apply and intend to remain there. Homeless people are presumed eligible in the municipality where they apply. Foreigners who are lawfully present in the United States, such as legal permanent residents, refugees, and asylum seekers, are qualified to seek GA.

Recipients of GA are supposed to work and repay for the assistance they receive unless they are disabled. Maine cities and towns are not supposed to ship their needy to other places in Maine. If they do, they are supposed to pay the cost. People on GA must apply for and use all government benefit programs available. So, the cost of GA is not the only cost associated with people on GA. 

State law requires a municipality to create and administer a GA program that provides eligible applicants with assistance at the municipality’s expense. The state generally reimburses the municipality for 70% of the direct cost it incurs. The stated policy goals of Portland’s GA program are “to recognize and encourage dignity, self-respect, and self-reliance, to assist each recipient to achieve self-maintenance and adequate social functioning, and to encourage the work incentive.”

At $44 million, the money Portland projects to spend on overflow hotels alone for the year represents about 20% of Portland’s current general fund (non-school, non-enterprise, user-fee supported Fish Pier, Sewer, Stormwater, Jetport) budget of $212 million. Fifteen-hundred people represents about 2.2% of Portland’s 2020 census population of 68,408. That’s the equivalent of 20% of the budget going to 2% of the population who weren’t in Portland before.

Due to the pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was covering Portland’s 30% share, about $13 million (about 6% of the general budget), but that will end in June. If the city has to bear that cost, it will have to cut core city services or increase taxes accordingly. The city also anticipates other budget issues such as inflation and a reduction in the amount of funding it will receive under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The problem is poised to get even more dire if the Biden Administration follows through on its plan to end Title 42 authority on May 23rd. Immigration authorities have been using Title 42 to summarily return, on the basis of the public health crisis posed by the pandemic, foreigners who are unauthorized to enter the country. Border state officials and moderates warn that ending the practice will result in a drastic increase in the number of people entering the country.

I have never seen a thorough analysis of the people panhandling on the streets of Portland, who they are, where they come from, why they are so down on their luck that they are unable to provide for themselves, or whether and what assistance they are getting. The most I am aware of is a 2013 article in The Bollard. Nor have I seen a thorough analysis of the other people that Portland has been accommodating. I have never seen any account of what progress Portland has been making toward the stated goals of its GA program. Any legal, rational, and fair solution begins with understanding the problem.

A partial solution might be to focus on enforcing the workfare requirement for GA. If you are able to stand on a street for hours holding a sign in all kinds of weather, if you can work shifts at the Franklin Arterial exit off 295 North, and at the Marginal Way and Fox Street cross streets, then you ought to be able to do the work that the city offers, or that employers around town need done. That would foster dignity, self-respect, self-reliance, self-maintenance, and social functioning.

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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