Freeze set on housing aid program

No new applications will be taken for funding

January 08, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The cash-strapped state government will institute a six-month freeze Monday on new applications for emergency housing aid for low-income, disabled people - a move that advocates fear could cause more people to become homeless as temperatures drop.

The Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance program has run out of money and faces a $5 million deficit. Thousands more people applied this fiscal year than expected, during an economic slump and a slowing in approval for federal disability payments, said Norris West, spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.

The 12,700 poor people with documented medical problems who are enrolled in the program today will continue to receive their $185 monthly cash payments, West said. But the state will take no new applicants from Monday until after July 1, meaning that perhaps thousands of people will be denied.

"This is unfortunately a difficult situation, but the program is threatened with becoming insolvent because of the looming deficit," West said.

The program cut occurs at a time when the state Department of Human Resources, operating at a deficit of at least $50 million and trying to operate more efficiently, is discussing closing almost half of the city's 20 social services offices that provide welfare payments and other programs.

"This is nothing short of a tragedy," said Jeff Singer, president of Health Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that serves the city's poor. "It's so cold outside right now, people could literally die if we just cut this program and more people become homeless. This is the bottom of the safety net that is being cut."

The state is continuing to urge people in crisis to come forward to their local welfare offices, which will continue to approve food stamps and medical assistance cards, West said. People can also go to the city's Office of Homeless Services or local shelters for help.

The state is committed to continuing the $24.4 million housing assistance program in the future, after July 1, West said. But to do that, it must institute this "emergency, temporary" halt in new approvals so that it can continue to serve its normal load of about 11,000 people a year, he said.

Part of the problem this year, Norris said, is that the federal Social Security Administration has become slower in granting approvals for disability payments, with the delay now often stretching more than two years if people are initially denied benefits and then win them on appeal, which is common.

The state's temporary housing assistance program, called TEMHA, was created about a decade ago as a stopgap to help disabled people until their federal disability payments kick in, experts said. The monthly $185 payments last a year, with possible annual extensions if people's appeals of Social Security denials take longer than that.

As the federal government has slowed the application and appeal process, the state has had to pay more for the TEMHA program than it expected, West said.

"This is devastating," said Brendan Walsh, co-founder of a food pantry in the city called Viva House. "But I don't think there is anything the city or state can do, if federal funds don't come in, and unfortunately so much federal money is going to the war in Iraq."

Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Baltimore Archdiocese, said the typical person served by the TEMHA program is a single adult who is so disabled by heart disease, back problems or other ailments that he or she cannot work. The money often helps a person pay rent and buy food.

"These are the state's most vulnerable individuals, and this is an erosion of the safety net for them," Meade said.

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