Program cuts affect those with `nothing'

Freeze: A six-month suspension in housing aid benefits to the disabled is expected to affect 10,000.

January 09, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Darty Bell, a 47-year-old former heroin and crack addict, bangs open the door of the shelter where he lives, striding past the heaps of trash in the alley, the boarded-up windows, and the teen-agers hawking drugs. He keeps his path straight and his head up as he makes his way toward the Baltimore clinic where he is in a drug treatment program.

"There is temptation right outside my door, everywhere around me, but I am determined to resist it," Bell says as he leaves the shelter on Greenmount Avenue and makes his way toward the Health Care for the Homeless treatment center at 111 Park Ave.

At the nonprofit organization, his counselor, Kevin Morton, reports that Bell is doing well -- with no drugs in his urine for more than a month. But Morton fears that thousands like Bell could slip back into homelessness, drug abuse and crime because of recent cuts to a state program that provides emergency cash assistance for the poor.

Faced with a deficit, the state plans to suspend new approvals of $185 monthly payments to disabled people trying to enter the Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance Program.

The suspension begins Monday and will last six months. It's expected to save about $5 million and means that about 10,000 people who might have applied between Monday and July 1 will be turned down, said Norris West, spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources. Those already approved will not be cut off.

Like many recipients, Bell says he uses the money to pay for the basics of life -- the boots on his feet, his coat, jeans and toothbrush.

But he and his counselor worry that he and others would return to desperation, drugs and dealing if this safety net were pulled away.

"I feel like I'm doing well now, but if I didn't have this $185 a month, I'd steal, rob -- do whatever it takes to get by," says Bell, a former nursing home aide who said he has been disabled by severe depression and lost his job four years ago.

Morton, the addiction treatment coordinator for Health Care for the Homeless, worries that many other people might turn to crime if the program's funds are frozen by the state.

"This is a program for people who have nothing, absolutely nothing," said Morton. "It may not sound like much to get $185 a month, but to a client like Darty, it means everything -- the chance to have some decent food, some decent clothes, some hygiene products. I don't know what would happen to these people without it."

The program, called TEMHA, is one of several cash assistance programs run by states around the country as a bridge to help disabled, childless adults as they wait through the often two-year process of applying for federal Social Security disability payments.

Locally funded cash assistance programs are often among the first things to be cut when states run into deficits, said Sharon Parrott, a welfare expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit agency in Washington.

Being denied the money could be particularly hard for the poor during the winter, and could lead to a rise in homelessness and emergency room visits, said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

The six-month freeze is necessary in part because several thousand more people have applied this fiscal year than expected, West said. And the federal government has slowed its process of reviewing appeals for Social Security benefits, forcing the state to pay $5 million more than expected for the program this year, said West.

"It's really unfortunate ... but we'd run out of money if the program kept running the way it is now, so state law allows us to stop accepting applications," West said.

One person who could be denied the cash payments is Ronald W. Forbes, a 46-year-old homeless man who recently went to Health Care for the Homeless to apply for the TEMHA program.

Forbes, a former construction worker who lost his job to cocaine addiction and depression, said he is now in treatment and wants the money to help rent a subsidized apartment on Paca Street.

"I want to stay clean, I want go back to work," said Forbes. "But I need the money to pay for the everyday needs of living, like a place to live."

The $185 monthly checks don't pay for an extravagant lifestyle.

After attending his drug treatment classes at Health Care for the Homeless, Bell returned to his shelter at 2215 Greenmount Ave.

He sleeps on a cot in a room with 10 other men, most of whom are also enrolled in drug treatment programs. Their blankets are gray and frayed, the windows covered in cages, the wallpaper peeling off the walls in large sheets.

Bell described how he puts a pill, buprenorphine, under his tongue every morning to kill his craving for heroin, how he eats oatmeal, peanut butter and tuna casserole that is served by the shelter's staff.

And he takes his monthly cash to the Goodwill store, to buy things like the long brown winter coat that he wears.

As a television blares in the corner of the shelter, Bell sits on a plastic chair, bows his head and writes in his journal about the treatment session he attended that morning.

"I thank God for another day," Bell writes, his script thin and spidery. "My focus is to stay clean. ... I heard today that the TEMHA program might be cut. I know how important it is to me and everyone else."

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