Disabled face hardships as state slashes benefits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Steve Newcome, Dot Ross and about 22,000 other impoverished, disabled people visit banks across Maryland this month, they won't find the $157 in state aid they have been accustomed to getting there -- money for rent, transportation and other necessities.

Effective today, the state's Disability Assistance and Loan Program (DALP), a $35-million-a-year last resort for disabled people who haven't secured federal help, is scrapped, and an $11.2 million program replaces it. A companion $13 million medical program has been cut to about $7 million.

In all, the average recipient's benefits have been slashed by more than 60 percent.

Former DALP recipients and their advocates predict that the program's demise will cause a sharp increase in homelessness, panhandling, petty crime and nonpaying patients at hospital emergency rooms -- especially in Baltimore, where 16,400 of the recipients live.

A group of advocates protested the cuts yesterday outside Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Baltimore office. Another group made a final, unsuccessful plea to administration officials that the safety net for poor, sick Marylanders be restored.

Mr. Newcome, a 39-year-old stroke victim in the Western Maryland town of Lonaconing, says the cutoff means he won't have the cash to pay his electric bill or buy the diapers that his incontinence makes necessary. He has desperately called congressmen, senators and even "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" in search of help.

"I'm sitting here in dirty pants," said Mr. Newcome, a former machinist who lives in subsidized housing and receives food stamps. "I don't know what to do. If you're like I am now, you have no rights when they decide to do something to you."

Ms. Ross, 48, a nurse who hasn't worked since she fell on the job three years ago, says the cuts could force her out of her drab, $125-a-month West Baltimore rooming house. She said the $157-a-month DALP payment she received allowed her to pay the rent, buy a $14 monthly bus pass and purchase toiletries.

"You're a criminal if you're poor in this country. You're subhuman if you're poor," said Ms. Ross, who says she worked steadily from 1965 until three years ago. "It doesn't take very much to become poor or homeless. A lot of people are living from paycheck to paycheck."

"Some percentage [of DALP recipients] were drug addicts or alcoholics, but the majority of people are honest, have a credible disability and aren't trying to 'get over,' " she said. "They're taking that small percentage and using them as an excuse to annihilate the whole program. That's not fair to people like myself."

State officials have estimated that more than 40 percent of DALP recipients were substance abusers, but that almost all of them had other medical problems, too. To qualify for DALP, recipients had to be certified as disabled, lack any other income and agree to apply for federal disability benefits.

Meeting with advocates

Alvin C. Collins, Maryland's secretary of human resources, said there was "a public perception that some individuals were using financial resources inappropriately." But he said there was no hard evidence that addicts and alcoholics were abusing the program.

After a two-hour meeting yesterday with advocates, Mr. Collins defended the cuts as painful but needed.

"The governor looked at the budget and realized he had to make reductions someplace. It was a budget-driven decision. It's just one part of the pain we're going to have to bear," he said.

An $11.2 million program known as Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance (TEMHA) replaces DALP beginning today. It would provide the equivalent of about $42 a month per recipient. However, unlike the old program, not everyone who is eligible will share in the funds nor will anyone receive cash.

Mr. Collins said state officials would carefully monitor the impact of the cuts as well as consider revamping the program next year. He said Mr. Glendening has pledged that "no additional homelessness will occur as a result of this program."

But Ann Ciekot, acting director of Action for the Homeless, who attended yesterday's meeting, said that unless the Glendening administration devotes more money to the program, more homelessness is inevitable.

"As much as I want this program to work and don't want to see people become homeless, end up in shelters, on the streets, in hospitals and in jails, I don't think it is going to work," Ms. Ciekot said. "You can't create an adequate program for [22,000] disabled people with $11.2 million."

Rent help for some

Baltimore accounts for 75 percent of the former DALP caseload and will receive that share of the funds for the new program.

Among other Maryland jurisdictions, only Baltimore County, with about 1,100 recipients, has more than 5 percent of the total caseload.

vTC Under the new program, to be administered by local social services departments, some recipients will be eligible for rental assistance of $50 or $125 a month. Baltimore officials estimate that about 500 people in the city will qualify for $125 a month in aid, 10,900 will receive $50 a month and the remaining 5,000 will get nothing.

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department Social Services, said the government would directly pay landlords who agreed to take part. She said almost all the money allocated to Baltimore for TEMHA would go to rental assistance. The remaining $210,000 -- an average of $12.80 a year per recipient -- would be distributed as vouchers for transportation, toiletries and the like.

Tremendous load

"We're trying to do the most we can do for most recipients given the amount of money we have," Ms. Fitzsimmons said. She added that the new program would create a "tremendous load administratively" on social services staff.

The DALP program itself was born of budget-cutting. In 1991, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer tried to eliminate a predecessor program known as General Public Assistance. Faced with strong opposition, the state devised the DALP compromise in 1992, cutting benefits from $205 to $157 a month. The cuts survived legal challenges that reached the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Protests planned

Opponents of Mr. Glendening's cuts have planned a series of protests this month, including a vigil today at WBAL Radio during the governor's scheduled appearance on "The Dan Rodricks Show."

Mr. Newcome, the stroke victim in Lonaconing, blamed the cuts on "the Republican governor."

Told that Mr. Glendening was in fact a liberal Democrat, Mr. Newcome said: "I call him a Republican. He lives down in the rich part of the city, and he has no idea what it's like to be in this situation. I think he's a horrible person. I don't think it's right."

Mr. Glendening actually lives in University Park in Prince George's County.

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