‘We spend about $65,000 a year on the needs of folks who qualify for various benefits. None of that money is spent on tents’

City Manager Joe Slocum: How City of Belfast works to help homeless

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 2:45pm

The City of Belfast has a full-time General Assistance Administrator who helps the homeless and needy every day. The General Assistance Program is a State of Maine regulatory program that provides limited benefits to people who are homeless or otherwise in need.

If we follow the State regulations in the administration of the program, then we qualify for 70% reimbursement of the monies we spend to help people in need. 

We help everyone fill out an application. Most people qualify but some do not. Disqualification is determined by the terms of the State regulations themselves. It can happen for a variety of enumerated reasons such as learning that the applicant actually lives in another Community. When that happens, we refer them to their own community and its General Assistance Administrator. 

If the applicant qualifies, then they are entitled to limited financial benefits such as food, personal and household items, heat, electricity and assistance with their rent or help the applicant getting into a permanent place to live. In the case of housing the maximum financial benefit we are allowed to spend is based upon State regulations, the guidelines are based on the household size, how many bedrooms and if heat is included in the rent. 

The financial caps on housing benefits limits the number and volume of rental options available. If there are no housing units inside the City that fall within financial caps, then we help the applicant look for housing elsewhere. If that housing is in another community, we help with those expenses as well. If the client is homeless, we provide the names and phone numbers to homeless shelters and also names and addresses of our landlords so applicants can look for housing opportunities.

We are always looking to hear if there are any vacancies in Belfast that fall within program guidelines and we are thrilled when we find one for someone in need. We certainly encourage people to try to stay with relatives or friends. 

Every month we also have applicants who would otherwise be homeless if not for the financial assistance we provide for them, so we are working on the prevention side too. 

Every day we work with other social service groups, nonprofit groups and church organized groups to help an applicant with anything that the General Assistance Program might not be able to help with. 

Most Towns in Maine, like Belfast, do not have a homeless shelter. 

We have limited access to homeless shelters in other Towns based upon availability. Some people in need refuse to go to a homeless shelter. There are some shelters we are hesitant to refer people to as they may not be suitable for children, 

During the summertime communities in Maine do not provide hotel rooms for the homeless. The State General Assistance office does not pay for hotel rooms in summer unless it's a medical necessity. 

There are people who can't find housing anywhere and they either sleep in their cars or on the ground outdoors. 

The City of Belfast collaborates with local nonprofits, doctors, churches and citizens to try to make some headway with the problem of homelessness.

As part of that volunteer effort, this group chose to look into the possibility of donated tents, sleeping bags and stoves to help people who don't qualify, or who do qualify but can't locate a housing opportunity within the financial parameters of the program anywhere 

These small amenities are seen as being better than nothing and can be set up with camp grounds where some folks get part time employment to offset their site cost, or in a relative or friends back yard where people still have access to toilets, bathing facilities and kitchens. 

Belfast is proud and dedicated to our efforts to work and collaborate with other groups, churches and agencies to do what we can to help the homeless. That effort was not to prioritize camping as our response to homelessness, but rather to offer it as something better than sleeping on bare ground or in a car. Across the Board we spend about $65,000 a year on the needs of folks who qualify for various types of benefits. None of that money is spent on tents. 

Recently the Bangor Daily News ran a headline about Belfast saying "The best this small City can offer people who became homeless is a tent and camping gear" They matched that article with a disparaging stock photo depicting a man with his laundry all over the sidewalk and a tarp like structure being adjusted against a building wall. The picture is not from Belfast but certainly enhanced the condemning and false tone of the headline intended to convey. If one wanted to make incorrect news, the ploy worked 

National news sources picked up the misleading headline and photograph, adding their own inaccuracies and continued to paint our efforts to help those in need our community in a misleading and derogatory way. 

None of these actions will deter our continuing dedication and effort to work together to help those in need.

Any questions or any concerns please take the time to call us at 338 3370 ext 120 or 110 – or just  stop by.

You might come to a different conclusion about what the best we can do really is.