Politics & Government

Unemployed disabled to lose cash payments

For the second year in a row, a state program that helps thousands of poor patients is about to be rebooted with a new name and tighter fists.

It’s government aid for unemployed people without kids – mostly single men – who used to get cash and treatment for their medical conditions from a decades-old program known as General Assistance Unemployable, and who last year found themselves on something called Disability Lifeline. This fall that ends and some 19,000 patients go to a new program, Essential Needs and Housing Support.

What participants noticed was not the changing names on the checks, but the falling dollar amounts. People such as Sean Dalton of Tacoma, whose Asperger Syndrome has made it hard to keep a job, have watched their $339-a-month checks shrink to $266 and then to $197.

On Nov. 1, the cash goes away entirely. State officials will try to shepherd some recipients to new kinds of help.

“It’s our job to try to find them and work with them before that point so we don’t have them become homeless unnecessarily,” said Rep. Jeannie Darneille, the Tacoma Democrat and lead lawmaker on the overhaul signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Supporters saved the program from being eliminated, as Gregoire threatened in December, but it took a $116 million cut. People will keep receiving medical treatment, and some who face homelessness will have their rent paid by the state. And most are eligible for federal food stamps.

“They just don’t ever have any money in their pocket,” said Kathy Kinard, a program manager at the Department of Commerce.

NEW HOUSING HELP

Kinard will help manage the new housing aid that replaces the cash grant. The budget gives her agency about $60 million to send to counties, which will contract with nonprofits and others that help people pay the rent.

Another $4 million will go to providing recipients with necessities from toothpaste to bus fare. Stations will be set up where the free items can be picked up.

No one expects the money to cover rent for everyone in the program. Lawmakers say they are targeting the quarter of them that are homeless, and some more who are in danger of becoming homeless when the cash grants dry up.

“There’s no way we can house everyone for that price,” said Troy Christensen, Pierce County’s administrator of homeless programs, whose $8 million budget will expand dramatically with the grants. “If we did, it would be under $200 a month each. And if you’ve looked at rents in Pierce County lately, you can’t get anything for that.”

CASH VS. RENT AID

The program is the last piece of the safety net for some who aren’t eligible for federal welfare – that’s for families with kids – and who are struggling to get federal approval for Supplemental Security Income for the disabled.

But it has been criticized for years for handing out cash that can be used for anything to a population that includes some with drug and alcohol problems. Critics say the money is likely used to feed those addictions.

In bipartisan budget talks, Republicans pushed successfully to end cash payments.

“We’re going to find out if people are just in it for the cash and not interested in helping themselves, or not,” said Senate Republicans’ lead negotiator, Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield.

Robin Zukoski, an Olympia attorney with Columbia Legal Services, which represents some recipients, said cash benefits allow people to choose how to spend the money on what they need most.

She and Christensen said only a minority of recipients spend their cash on booze and other questionable items.

“I think we’ve designed an entire program around the poor choices of a few,” Zukoski said. “By far the most efficient way to support any population is to give them the money directly and let them find their own path.”

She worries money that now goes out as cash benefits will be wasted on administrative costs. Some of the money will stay with the Department of Commerce, and more with county governments – though lawmakers capped those amounts.

‘EDGE OF THE CLIFF’

Dalton, 35, lives in the house his mother bought last year on Tacoma’s McKinley Avenue. The former Navy sailor has used the cash grants to pay some rent to his mother, Chris Dalton, with $37 a month to spare for everything else.

“I was basically a shut-in, pretty much, because I didn’t have any money to go out of the house,” Sean Dalton said.

“I was hanging on by the end of my fingertips at the edge of the cliff.”

And as the checks shrank and other government aid lapsed, his mother said she feared she wouldn’t be able to make her mortgage payments, even though she works full time as a bookkeeper.

Now the federal government has come to the rescue by granting her son a Veterans Affairs disability pension, the Daltons said. Starting this month, Sean Dalton won’t get the cash grants.

HEALTH CARE NOT CUT

With cash grants disappearing, House Democrats, led by Darneille and Speaker Frank Chopp, sought to fill part of the gap with housing aid. Democrats also preserved medical care with the help of some federal aid.

“We took no cuts there. None,” Chopp, who has been the program’s key protector, said last week. “We saved it because it saves lives.”

For many in Pierce or Thurston counties, medical treatment means a trip to one of the low-income clinics run by Sea Mar or Community Health Care. Budget cuts prodded CHC to shutter its Tillicum location this summer.

Aside from closures, it could be harder for patients to make it to their clinics if they lose the cash grants and have to move to a new home, Community Health Care CEO David Flentge said.

“People’s lives are going to be in pretty serious disruption,” Flentge said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com

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