Welfare cuts loom for 9,000 State, Baltimore seek to cushion impact of Jan. 1 deadline; More homelessness feared; Housing officials say agency could see 'financial crisis'


About 9,000 Baltimore residents -- mostly women and children -- face being thrown off the state's welfare rolls in four months when the federal government's Jan. 1 welfare-to-work deadline arrives.

State Department of Social Services officials recently notified the city's Homeless Relief Advisory Board about the cutoff date. The state plans to form a coordinated effort with city leaders and social agencies to find work or gain exemptions for those facing financial peril, about 12 percent of city welfare recipients.

President Clinton and Congress set the deadline two years ago after passage of the federal welfare reform bill. Advocates for the city's estimated 3,500 homeless worry that the cutoff will result in hundreds of women and children being forced to live on Baltimore streets.

"It's really scary," said Robert V. Hess, president of the newly formed nonprofit Center for Poverty Solutions. "Nobody knows how many of those 9,000 women and children will be homeless, but even if it's 10 percent, that's 900 people who couldn't possibly be absorbed in the current [homeless] facilities."

One of every 10 city residents receive welfare, about 71,000 people, according to state officials. Two-thirds of the recipients -- about 50,000 -- are children. Many of the welfare recipients live in city Housing Authority properties, said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

Henson and state officials are more optimistic about cushioning the potential deadline blow.

Welfare recipients who are Housing Authority tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. The city won't evict tenants who are unable to pay, Henson said, but the welfare cuts could cause a financial crisis for the city housing agency.

The city houses about 50,000 residents in its 16,000 public units and handles a $200 million budget. Although exact figures aren't available, city housing administrators estimate that the city could see rent from several hundred welfare tenants disappear as a result of the cutoff.

"We're looking at this as a financial problem," said Henson, a member of the homeless advisory board. "Thirty percent of zero is zero."

The state met with the city's homeless advisory board, which reports to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, to alert agencies about the deadline.

"We're hoping that customers will take this seriously," said Baltimore Department of Social Services spokeswoman Sue Fitzsimmons. "For everybody who was on public assistance as of January 1997, the clock is ticking."

The state estimates that it has placed 5,030 city welfare recipients in jobs over the last two years, and another 1,000 slots are open for job activities, such as training and part-time or temporary work.

But many of the remaining welfare recipients carry problems that make them hard to employ, Fitzsimmons said.

The law allows families exemptions from the deadline if parents or children suffer from a serious illness. Other recipients could be exempted if they are participating in a drug rehabilitation program that extends beyond the deadline, Fitzsimmons said.

"We're getting down to the customers who are harder to place," Fitzsimmons said. "But we want to make people aware that they have to do something with their lives."

Case workers will soon meet with city welfare recipients who have been notified of the cutoff to review their options. The goal is to reduce the potential number of recipients thrown off the rolls in January, Fitzsimmons said.

"We're not despairing," Fitzsimmons said. "We're beginning an intensive campaign."

Maryland has an estimated 7,000 homeless residents, half in Baltimore, Hess said. And shelter space in the city can accommodate half of them, he said. The Center for Poverty Solutions, based in Baltimore, is a merger of the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless.

The task force plans to meet again next month, hoping to devise policies that will brace Baltimore for the impending welfare-to-work deadline.

"There needs to be some serious policy discussion on how this is going to happen," Hess said.

Welfare deadline

About 9,000 Baltimore residents -- mostly women and children -- may be thrown off state welfare rolls when the Jan. 1 federal welfare-to-work deadline passes. The following is a breakdown of city welfare recipients:

City population .. .. .. .. .. .. 670,000

Total welfare recipients .. .. .. 71,000

Child recipients .. .. .. ... ... 50,217

Adult recipients .. .. .. ... ... 21,160

SOURCE: Maryland Department of Social Services

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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