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Manchester charges for stays in shelter

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 16. 2012 10:18PM

MANCHESTER - The city Welfare Department regularly charges people to stay at the shelter it operates, a practice that distinguishes it from other welfare offices in the state.

The policy, which has been in place for several years, applies to people who stay at the shelter at 11 Liberty St. in the city's North End. The building was run entirely by the welfare office under the name Manchester Emergency Housing until July, when its operation was taken over by the nonprofit Families in Transition (FIT). The city welfare office, however, still controls four of the seven family units in the building, and it pays FIT $85,000 a year to operate the facility.

Welfare Commissioner PMartineau said his office charges $25 a night to stay at the Liberty Street shelter, but that guests would only pay depending on their means.

"If you have no income, then obviously you can't pay us anything," Martineau said, adding that his office still keeps track of per-night costs. "In the long run, if somebody is able to pay us back they have to, but that doesn't happen too often."

The money collected from people at the emergency shelter, as well through liens on property and legal judgments, is considered "expense recovery" in the welfare office's budget.

In 2011, the office took in $21,544 in recoveries, and this year it took in $31,293, according to Martineau. He noted that these savings, along with those brought through staff cuts and other reforms, have resulted in his office sending $1.7 million to the city's general fund over a 10-year period.

"We're not a charity, unfortunately," Martineau said. "We're fortunate in this city to have many social service agencies, and they provide millions of dollars in assistance."

Elliott Berry, the lead attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, a legal advocacy group for low-income people, said he is unaware of other welfare agencies in the state that dock public assistance checks to pay for housing.

Under the state welfare statute, RSA 165, local welfare offices are allowed to seek to recover costs from aid recipients, but only if and when they "return to an income status to enable them to take care of own subsistence needs. I would suggest that is not the case with most of those people," Berry said, referring to those staying at Manchester shelter.

Berry added that the situation in Manchester is unique in that the office operates its own housing. Other welfare agencies send the needy to nonprofit shelters or pay for hotels.

"I don't know of anywhere else in the state where the welfare office is the gatekeeper to the shelter," he said.

One man, after reading reports in the New Hampshire Union Leader about the city welfare office, agreed to share his experience of being charged to stay at the shelter. In September 2005, Steven (not his real name), his wife and two kids became homeless after Steven lost his job and what he called a "bad decision."

He said one of the first things city welfare officials did when the family was allowed to move into the shelter was have him apply for state and federal assistance. Once Temporary Assistance for Needy Families checks started coming, Steven was told that most of the money would go to cover "expenses" at the facility, he said.

"I would have to go every two weeks with 15 to 20 bucks, to buy everything, shampoo, toothpaste, supplies for my kids," Steven said.

Steven's TANF check was around $600, he said.

Steven added that said the staff at center treated him poorly. "I bought a pair boots and pants for my kids, and I almost got thrown out," he said. "They just belittle and belittle you. Every ounce of dignity, they rip it from you."

Steven said the practice of docking assistance checks was common among all those who stayed at the emergency shelter when he was there. He estimates he paid the shelter close to $3,000 over the five months he was there.

Steven insisted that his real name not be used. He said he's in a much better situation now, his kids are doing well in city schools, and he fears that Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau might try to retaliate against him.

Bob Mack, the welfare director in Nashua, which has the second largest department in the state after Manchester, said that his office may use liens to recover costs after assistance is provided. As a general rule, he said, "If someone has the ability to repay the assistance, they should repay, but it doesn't always happen. It often doesn't happen," Mack said.

Its shelter policy is one of several at the Manchester Welfare Department that makes it unique compared to other city welfare offices. Berry's organization took to the department to court over its policy of suspending the benefits of those caught misrepresenting their financial circumstances for six months. In September, the state Supreme Court found that the welfare office's policy conflicts with state law.

Until recently, the city welfare office had the distinction of closing to the public during the lunch hour and for another additional two hours during the week. The office last month announced that it will stay open during normal business hours.

Martineau said only a small fraction of people seeking emergency housing stay at the Liberty Street shelter. The office pays for hotels for others.

Housing costs make up the largest portion of the welfare office's budget for assistance. In 2012, it paid $125,000 to Manchester Emergency Housing and $71,000 in rent, according to documents provided by the office.

The amount the office pays for housing, along with all other forms assistance, has declined considerably over the past decade. In 2003, the office paid $175,000 to MEH and $278,000 in rental assistance. The amount of money Martineau's office spends on assistance has dropped to less than 40 percent of its approximately $1 million budget. Most of the budget goes toward staffing, including Martineau's 2012 salary of $113,000. This has risen due to the city's Yarger Decker system of annual raises and has been the subject of several recent aldermanic meetings.

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