Out in the cold

January 20, 2004

FREEZING A STATE program that gives $185 per month to disabled adults down on their luck is a costly mistake.

Department of Human Resources officials say the money is running out for its Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance program this fiscal year, so while it still will take applications for aid, and give food stamps and medical assistance, it will not offer cash to new applicants until July; current recipients will continue to get it.

The money is nearly gone because far more people applied than the department expected (averaging 12,700 a month instead of 11,000) and because the federal reimbursement that helps replenish the program's funds is slower than expected (two years instead of 18 months).

Over the next six months, that could leave an estimated 9,000 people already living on the edge a little more desperate.

This has happened before, when the Disability Assistance and Loan Program was dropped in July 1995 and replaced by TEMHA in January 1996. Half of former DALP recipients in a University of Maryland census of 158 men at one Fells Point soup kitchen that summer said they lost their housing as a result of losing that check.

What else does the small grant support? Without the temporary-assistance money, newly needy people who are also fighting addiction won't be able to afford to enter the network of informal drug-treatment group homes or recovery houses in the city. At many such houses, residents must attend treatment centers during the day to stay in the house at night. Many of these homes, which don't get state aid, depend on their clients' small contributions: The residents of two such houses, for example, pool the aid money to cover rent and food each month.

Losing these bridge programs reduces the choices available to people who are destitute and disabled, leaving them more vulnerable to the temptations of begging and stealing to support themselves; some may end up on the streets, or in jail.

Denying checks to new, qualified applicants is legal, but that doesn't make it right. Instead, DHR officials should petition the General Assembly for an emergency loan of $5 million to bridge the gap until July, when the new state budget kicks in.

The federal government reimburses the state for the portion that is paid out to people while they wait to be approved for Social Security disability money, about $5 million of the $24.4 million fund. The rest, temporary assistance to troubled adults who are not applying for federal benefits, is far more cost-effective than some of the alternatives.

The city estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 Baltimoreans are homeless each night, and at best there are 2,100 shelter beds available. Casting potentially thousands more poor folks into the cold is fiscally and socially short-sighted. Maryland can do better than that.

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