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General assistance run-around pushed N.M. family into homelessness
General assistance is a state-funded program that provides cash assistance to extremely poor, vulnerable New Mexicans. Beginning in February this year, the New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD) began cutting these benefits through a series of administrative actions, resulting in drastic numbers of families losing their benefits.
HSD has recently announced that it is considering shutting the program to new applicants, cutting benefits to those receiving assistance by 40 percent, and suspending general assistance payments entirely.
Sarah, meanwhile, lives in the East Mountains with her two teenage daughters, Samantha and Sally, and her infant granddaughter Tiffany. Sarah is disabled and cannot work. She has applied for social security disability benefits but until she begins receiving benefits, her family relies on general assistance to help pay the rent.
In February, when Sarah received a notice from the HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) informing her that she had to reapply for general assistance, she did everything she was supposed to do. She sent in a new application and took the long bus ride to the ISD office in Albuquerque for an interview and provided copies of all the documents she was asked to provide.
Sarah thought everything was fine. But when she tried to pay her rent, she found out everything was not fine. Sarah’s small general assistance stipend — $539 per month for the entire family — had unexpectedly been stopped. When she called the ISD office, she was told that her children’s school had not faxed back a form confirming their attendance. Sarah contacted the school herself and brought the completed forms to ISD. She was assured then that ISD had all the information they needed and that she would receive her stipend within two weeks.
Sarah begged her landlord to give her another two weeks to pay her rent — expecting that ISD would be good to their word and process her case so she could get her benefits by then.
Sarah’s landlord agreed but two weeks came and went without her stipend arriving. Sarah asked for a hearing to determine whether ISD was handling her case properly and she started calling the ISD office every day. Every day she was told the same thing — there is a big stack of cases — and the office will get to her case as time allowed.
Almost three weeks into the month, Sarah had still not received her general assistance stipend and she, along with her two daughters and her infant granddaughter were evicted. The family became homeless — staying in shelters some nights and doubling up with friends and family on others. Meanwhile, Samantha and Sally began missing school.
ISD told her that her file had been lost and that she needed to bring all her documents in again. She was also told that she had a scheduled appointment that morning which was news to her — she had received no letter or phone call about this meeting. Sarah arranged to come in at 3 p.m. since she had to arrange transportation. She gathered all her paperwork to prepare for the long bus ride to the office. Sarah arrived early and was told to wait until she was called.
By the time it was 4 p.m., she became nervous as her family needed to be at the shelter by 5 p.m. to secure a bed for the night. Finally, Sarah was called. She quickly gave the worker all the paperwork she had been asked to bring. The worker no longer needed it — Sarah’s file had been found. Then she was told for the first time her benefits would not be continued until she provided additional medical records. Sarah left in tears and without her general assistance benefits.
Sarah had done everything she could think to do and decided to call Law Access New Mexico for help. The next week her general assistance was restored. No one from ISD called Sarah to tell her they had finally fixed her benefits. No letter was sent to her with the good news. By chance, Sarah’s daughter Sally checked their account and discovered that the benefits had been posted.
Sarah has her benefits back — for now — but there are questions about whether this program will still be in place come summer.
The recently announced cuts by HSD have been proposed because the program currently faces a budget shortfall due, in part, to years of financial mismanagement. The program has already suffered a 40 percent reduction in participants since last November and very few of those applying for help now are getting it — just 11 percent of the 1,042 people who applied in January and February were able to receive it.
For so many vulnerable families, homelessness lurks around every corner when basic benefits are cut — and the economy is making matters worse. For example, Albuquerque Public Schools has seen a 115 percent increase in the number of students who are homeless since last August. As such, programs like general assistance are more important than ever.
New Mexico should fund it adequately and run it well. New Mexicans like Sarah and her family deserve no less.
Editor’s note: Patricia Anders is a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. The names in this article have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.