BANGOR, Maine — In the six years that Shawn Yardley has overseen the city’s health and community services department, he has never seen things this dire.
On most mornings when he arrives at his office before 8 a.m., Yardley unlocks the door for residents who are waiting to fill out an application for general assistance. Most applicants are encouraged to make appointments, but walk-ins are becoming more common. Yardley always lets them wait in the lobby. Some have to wait for hours but they are always seen.
General assistance, an emergency safety net program administered by municipalities but funded in part by the state, is becoming an increasingly used entitlement for people struggling with finances or waiting to receive federal subsidies.
From July through December of last year, the first half of the 2011 fiscal year, the city granted assistance to more people — 1,257 — than it did for the entire 2010 fiscal year. In October, the number of cases was up 20 percent over the previous year. In November, cases were up 30 percent.
The dollar amount is harder to track because there are delays in when assistance vouchers are cashed, but Yardley said the city is spending considerably more to help out its most vulnerable residents. Last year, the city appropriated $2.3 million.
So far in January, things aren’t getting any better.
Yardley appeared before city councilors on Tuesday to ask permission to hire a temporary caseworker to help meet what he called unprecedented demand. The city currently has four full-time general assistance caseworkers and a program supervisor. Since money exists in the department’s budget and since Yardley already contacted a recent retiree about filling the position, councilors granted the request.
She plans to start next week.
“She’ll be handling just the walk-ins; just the emergencies,” he said. “Right now, we’re scheduling appointments out more than a month for what most would consider emergent situations.”
Asked whether he sees things subsiding anytime soon, Yardley shrugged.
“I guess it depends on what the governor includes in his next budget for general assistance,” he said. “There could be big changes.”
Gov. Paul LePage campaigned extensively on a platform of welfare reform and is expected to look closely at the general assistance program. Already, more than a dozen bills have been submitted by legislators that propose changes to the program, although the text of those bills is not available.
Dan Demeritt, the governor’s spokesman, said Wednesday that the governor believes the state needs to change the welfare culture to discourage granting assistance simply because people are eligible and instead provide more support for people to break the cycle of dependence.
General assistance exists in every Maine community. Under state law, cities and towns administer the program and are required to cover 50 percent of the costs. The state picks up the remainder.
However, in communities such as Bangor where the need is great, the state pays for 90 percent of general assistance once a threshold is reached. The threshold is related to net general assistance costs to a municipality in excess of 0.03 percent of its total property valuation.
Yardley said the threshold in Bangor is usually met five months into the fiscal year.
Inside the lobby of the city’s health and community services office on Texas Avenue early Wednesday afternoon, about a dozen people sat in chairs waiting to meet with a caseworker to see if they would receive any assistance. Overwhelmingly, that assistance comes in the form of rent vouchers. Most who waited were young couples. Some had children in strollers or car seats.
Many declined to speak to a reporter, but Francesca, 24, who waited with her 3-month-old daughter, Una, said this is the fifth consecutive month she has applied for general assistance. She said she wants to work but has gone three years without a steady job.
“I’m tired of getting turned down” for jobs, she said, cradling her daughter in the waiting area.
Francesca said she hopes to move soon to another entitlement program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which will provide her with financial assistance while she goes back to school.
“I don’t want to keep coming here every month,” she said.
Yardley said the current situation in Bangor could help frame the expected legislative discussions and also help dispel stereotypes that often dominate policy debates.
For the 2010 calendar year, the city’s general assistance office granted 1,591 awards totaling $2.3 million. Of that total, 1,025 had received assistance for less than five months. Only about 7 percent had received assistance for more than one year.
“I think that addresses the misconception that people are staying on GA for years and years,” Yardley said.
Another telling statistic is the high number of GA recipients, 97 percent, who are established residents of Bangor, a sign that service centers are carrying a heavy load.
City councilors said Tuesday that they are wary of the growing demand in Bangor, and they expect to discuss general assistance extensively when they meet with members of the city’s legislative delegation next week.
As for Yardley, he said his staff will continue to “bail out the boat,” but he worried about the increased burden placed on his employees. Still, he is buoyed by success stories.
Recently, a man who received general assistance from the city of Bangor for many months contacted Yardley’s office. He had inherited a substantial amount of money from a relative who died and wanted to pay back everything he received. The man wrote a check for $2,400.
“I think people need to hear those stories as much as they hear the negative ones,” Yardley said.