Troubled Voucher Program Re-evaluated

by Tom Hayes

During the first few weeks of February, three agencies began distributing Adult Emergency Assistance vouchers to Cuyahoga County adults with low incomes. But by the end of the initial distribution period, many recipients viewed the program as chaotic and haphazard at best, causing alienation, complaints, and protests that will be hanging gloomily over the city skyline until July, when the next disbursement comes along.

Bob Bonthius, of the Legal Aid Society, said that the system was set up to fail, that there were no serious fraud controls, and that the program lacked planning. He further accused the state of what he called an "experiment in de-volution," in which the state government was experimenting with what would happen to appropriated monies without federal structures in place. Bonthius then suggested that the confusion surrounding the AEA program was "an unfortunate example of how power devolves to the lowest possible level, resulting in little fiscal management and responsibility," and further, that "those who dole out the money can be as arbitrary as they choose to be."

A waft of this was insinuated by Gary Allen, a homeless client at the Cosgrove meal site, who suggested that money was more easily obtained by and given to people who were well-known or favored at the distribution sites. But a more serious concern is the arbitrary nature of decisions as to the "real" needs of prospective recipients. This complaint was backed by Mark Jefferson, a homeless man who felt he had been discriminated against by the distribution system: "who determines how much [money] you get?" Jefferson knew that individual grants were $500 and yet, some people he knew received less than that; he wanted to know why, and who decided. Jefferson explained that no one would tell him what the requirements for eligibility were: "you don’t know the criteria"—that was, until he showed up to apply: then, since he wasn’t prepared, his application was delayed. Further, that he was given the "run around" when he called to find sites and requirements; was transferred from person to person, and people even argued with him. "They deliberately withheld information," said Jefferson. Some agencies, he said, had run out of money.

Before 1991, GA gave $148 per month to 42,554 recipients in Cuyahoga County. By March of 1995, there were 13,654 recipients in Cuyahoga County, and the assistance amount had been cut to $100 per month for 6 months out of every 12 month period. Then, finally, on July 31, 1995, General Assistance was canceled entirely.

On August 16, 1995, just under one month later, the Governor signed Am Sub HB 167, the Welfare Reform Bill. Along with this bill, Rep. Joan Lawrence (R-Galena) added a stipulation that sought a "less structured, more direct" method of getting assistance to individuals. This "less structured, more direct" method became Adult Emergency Assistance (AEA). AEA is targeted at former General Assistance and current Disability Assistance recipients.

Through a formula created by the State Set-Aside Committee, Cuyahoga County received an allocation of $626,982—up to 3% of which could be used for administrative expenses by those distributing the money. Through this process, the three organizations chosen decided to divide the monies into thirds, less the 3 percent administrative funds—which all agencies used. Thus, of the $626,982 dollars, $18,809 were removed for administrative purposes: $1,600 for United Way services, and the full 3% for the other agencies. Of the funds to be distributed, each agency received approximately $202, 724 from United Way Services.

According to the Fact Sheet, "the monies are to be funneled through local Emergency Food and Shelter (EFS) Boards for county use." Guidelines for the use of AEA funds/eligibility were as follows: "By law, AEA funds are to be used for: payments to or on behalf of an individual; persons 18 years or older, single or married, who are not eligible for the Family Emergency Assistance (FEA is the emergency assistance program for families with children who are receiving ADC); persons with incomes of 25% of poverty or less ($156/month for a single individual or $209/month for a couple). It was the intention that the AEA funds be available to meet a wide variety of emergency needs. The program was intentionally created to be flexible, as the Fact Sheet indicates, "so that diverse populations and geographic areas are reached...the mandate is to keep it simple, and to use the full share of the county’s funds to assist eligible adults in need."

However, there was an additional stipulation which suggested that, "although the law sets few parameters on the distribution of funds, the local boards must decide if imposing certain limits/restrictions on the use of funds would allow for more equitable distribution to recipients, without rendering the program inflexible or unnecessarily complex." And it was further stated that local boards could, "establish their own limits for grant amounts, number of times assistance will be provided and the types of assistance to be covered." Thus reversing its own loose regulations and allowing the Local Fiscal Agent (the agency selected to re-distribute the AEA funds locally) to decide.

Without allowing any fundamental alterations of the eligibility requirements, the Local Fiscal Agent (United Way Services) allowed the Local Recipient Organizations (Catholic Charities, The Salvation Army, and the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland) to settle on their own specific regulations. A maximum of $500 in assistance per grant was the only documented item agreed on. In its conception on the state level, there was to have been no limit on the number of times an individual could request and receive assistance; no limit on the total value of assistance per individual for the funding period; and finally, that the application for assistance could include multiple need/service categories. An addition, as well, for some agencies, was that documentation was required: a photo I.D.; proof of income if applicable; and service specific documentation—such as utilities, car repairs.

At the Bishop Cosgrove meal site, distribution began in early February. The events of the first day were, reportedly, confusing. They were described by Bob U. Banks, a Grapevine vendor as "a mad house." The next day, in fact, the Cosgrove had to close its doors to the large population of persons who showed up. After that, a lottery system was put in place. On Friday, February 16, at St. Augustine’s meal site, the police had to respond to calm the angry mob of persons who had been turned away.

"It was a good concept," said Allen, "but it caught everyone by surprise." Allen reported participating in the lottery: for what, he didn’t know. "They asked me "what do you need?’" When he didn’t know what they meant, a Cosgrove staff person suggested items. He also added that he, "didn’t like the way people got greedy about it."

Grapevine vendors reported voucher recipients as photocopying vouchers for use, and that vouchers were being sold for cash—at half price. Dave’s Supermarket had problems of its own—with voucher recipients offering to purchase customer’s groceries, as long as they received the change. Dave’s Supermarket finally had to regulate the recipients’ purchases. For instance, a recipient was stopped for attempting to purchase twenty cases of soda pop.

Some homeless people were confused by rules which were stated one way, and, in practice, done another. For Bob U. Banks, a homeless person and Grapevine vendor who had a voucher taken away from him, the "no limit request" aspect of the program fit the above description perfectly. Catholic Charities took the voucher and explained that they were trying to help as many people as possible.

John, another homeless person, reported that The Salvation Army site on Lorain Avenue lost the photocopies of his I.D. and other information and that he was being punished for the mistake—as The Salvation Army would not fill his request without the information. John also reported that the Goldfish Army Outdoor Store wasn’t capable of meeting his needs: that there were only two pair of sneakers—one at $82.99 and the other too small for him; that the only coats available were leather jackets at $129.99—far from the "regular" clothes he needed and could afford with his $200 clothing voucher (if he wanted more than one item). Jeff Alpern, however, of the Goldfish Army Outdoor Store claimed "we are doing everything we can to process people." Alpern claimed that the store was given no notice of on what day the AEA recipients would arrive. While, by his own description, everyone was well-behaved and well taken care of, he asserted that nearly 1,000 people came to the store within the first day. That by the end of another day 350 pairs of jeans were reduced to 120 pairs. Alpern admitted to John’s complaint about shoes, but that there were plenty of jackets for less than twenty dollars and that, simply, stock in the store could not be maintained.

Chip Joseph, from Catholic Charities, said that some of these misunderstandings were not reflective of the more positive aspects of the program. One recipient, who had been laid off and needed money for both rent and car repairs, tore up his voucher when he unexpectedly received a check from the IRS—he wanted to support himself. Joseph pointed out Angelo Anderson, another vendor for the Grapevine, who used his voucher positively—for boots and a new coat. Joseph also suggested that the extremely loose guidelines may have contributed to some of the confusion and that he felt convinced all the agencies "did the best they could under the circumstances," that they "tried their hardest" to accomplish what "seemed like an impossible task."

Some of the criticisms, made by Cassandra McConnell of the Empowerment Center of Greater Cleveland, in a letter to Harvey A. Freiman, Chairman of the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA)—which oversees the Cuyahoga County Emergency Food and Shelter Board—was that the "administrating organizations developed and implemented caps for assistance such as clothing, food, furniture, hygiene, utilities and glasses, "which by State regulation they weren’t supposed to do." McConnell also said that the "administrating agency also required rent assistance to be given to those clients that could verify that they had income"—eliminating those persons who could not provide that kind of evidence. Finally, McConnell wrote that recipients were "only allowed to purchase clothes from [a] K-Mart or Goldfish Army/Navy at [a] Dave’s Supermarket or Finast...or "to purchase used stoves and refrigerators...and furniture from thrift stores." In conclusion, McConnell wrote that she was "very concerned about the lack of public information shared about the AEA program." That "other community agencies that serve the eligible population as well as eligible clients were not advised on how to apply, where to apply or who was eligible. Unfortunately," she continues, "advertisement for this program was done through ‘word of mouth.’"

But for agencies such as CEOGC and Catholic Charities, such ideas as public advertisement caused problems; "how do you publicize ‘no rules’?" asked Evelyn Rice, the Community Services Director of CEOGC. She further commented that such publicity could "create dangerous situations for the public and the staff," as many more people would show up than there was money-backed vouchers to go around. A situation which occurred at St. Augustines.

Further, as Joseph pointed out, none of the agencies distributing the money could know "how bad it would awesome a task." He conceded that it may have been better for one agency to distribute funds, but that this situation created problems all its own; that it would require a "huge staff."

Joseph said that Catholic Charities had spent its 3 percent of administrative monies "before the first voucher was given out." And he further pointed to the years it took for the Department of Human Services to create its delivery system: a system which the Local Recipient Organizations had two months to create; that, in the words of Joseph, "building a system from the ground up was a nightmare."

A further rebuttal to criticisms offered by the Empowerment Center was that the vouchers themselves were only going to be accepted by stores which agreed to participate. "We can’t force stores to accept vouchers...there are vendors that don’t want to deal with vouchers," said Rice, Director of CEOGC. This suggests another problem. Joseph was open for suggestions as to a better means of purchasing power. Agency checks were suggested, but if state-level legislators don’t want AEA money going to liquor or other "non-emergency items," then this option will not work.

Bonthius suggested that the state saw "an easy way out" on trying to meet some of the "need it had created by abolishing General Assistance" and its cuts to AFDC—both of which were run by the county welfare department.

But far from placing the entire blame at the state level, Bonthius suggested that the state expected the county to be "responsible enough to design a program" to address local needs. But where Bonthius’s greatest fear seemed to lie was that "finger pointing" would go "toward homeless individuals—not at the FEMA board, which was unprepared." Chip Joseph expressed a similar concern about "blaming the client," and Cassandra McConnell said flatly that there is "no correlation between income and fraudulent behavior"—that it happens at all income levels.

Some further criticisms offered by Bonthius included: not considering the distribution mechanism already created at the welfare department (which does its distributions in a uniform way and has an appeals process for persons who feel they were unfairly treated); that money seemed to have been simply tossed to agencies for distribution.

What is certain is that most of the agencies interviewed agreed that the program needed reconsidering, and that the reconsidering needed input from all agencies concerned about how the monies are distributed—and for what reasons.

In his return letter to Cassandra McConnell, Harvey A. Freiman agreed with the idea of a "community based committee to evaluate the first implementation of AEA," but rebutted criticisms of the right of the Emergency Food and Shelter Board or the Local Recipient Organizations to create guidelines for the distribution of monies, saying that "the Adult Emergency Assistance program is not an entitlement program; it is a program to meet the emergency needs of persons" and that the "guidelines do not prohibit Local Recipient Organizations (LROs) from requiring documentation of specific needs." Nor did the Cuyahoga County FEMA board "prohibit the three [organizations] from getting together to establish guidelines." Freiman also goes on to defend the choices of clothing, food, and other stores—because of their locations in proximity to voucher distribution sites and the quality of merchandise. He writes that used stoves and refrigerators which are in "good working condition" are an "excellent use of limited AEA funds."

In the end, it would seem that agency cooperation would have eliminated many of the problems that did occur and that greater community input would have benefited the whole program.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March – April 1996 – Issue 14