Armed with a bullhorn and hand-drawn signs, more than 100 people marched on the headquarters of the state Department of Human Resources yesterday, demanding an end to a freeze on a program that provides cash assistance for the poor and disabled.
"This is the Department of Human Resources, but they cut us off as if we are not human," shouted Israel Cason, president of a drug treatment program called I Can't, We Can Inc., as protesters cheered, held hands and prayed outside the offices at 311 W. Saratoga St.
The march, and an earlier news conference by Mayor Martin O'Malley, were organized to protest a decision by the cash-strapped state government this week to save $5 million by halting approvals to people applying for the Transitional Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance program.
State officials argue that the six-month freeze is necessary because the sluggish economy has prompted many more people to apply for assistance. In addition, the federal government is slowing down its approvals of Social Security disability payments.
The state's $24 million-a-year TEMHA program annually serves at least 15,000 childless and disabled adults, many of them unemployed men who are waiting through the often two-year process of applying for federal disability aid.
Some qualify for the $185 monthly TEMHA checks because they suffer from back problems, depression, anxiety and other illnesses. Many are also former or recovering drug addicts, although addiction itself does not qualify as a disability, according to state officials.
Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, did not address the crowd. But later in the day, he called a news conference and said he had no choice but to freeze the program in light of the federal government's slow-down in disability approvals.
"There is never a good time to make a difficult decision like this," McCabe said. "This change was necessary because of the budget limitations of the program, and it is not done lightly. ... If no action were taken, we would have experienced a $5 million deficit."
Yesterday, the state urged the Social Security Administration to speed up its approval process so the state won't be left with a growing deficit as the federal delay gets longer, said Kevin M. McGuire, executive director of welfare programs for the state Department of Human Resources.
McCabe urged needy people to continue showing up at the city's social service offices, which can approve food stamps and medical aid, even though no new cash assistance for disabled people will be approved until after July 1.
During the past year, officials in McCabe's agency have said that they are exploring a number of strategies to save money and operate more efficiently, including a discussion of closing down almost half the 20 social service offices in the city.
During a morning news conference outside Health Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit agency at 111 Park Ave. downtown, O'Malley, state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes and others complained that the cuts could make more city residents become homeless and die from the cold.
Leaders of I Can't, We Can Inc. brought in scores of formerly homeless people - many recovering drug addicts - to listen to the mayor's news conference and later to march on the state Department of Human Resources headquarters. Many lined up on the sidewalks and cheered the mayor on.
As advocates for the poor passed out ice cubes to symbolize what they said was the cold-heartedness of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s freeze, O'Malley attacked Ehrlich for trying to solve the state's budget crisis by targeting the poorest citizens.
"What's been going on is that the state is squeezing the Department of Social Services for every dollar it can be squeezed for," O'Malley told the crowd.
"But to make these cuts on the front end, you will only exacerbate the deep-end costs - the jail costs, the costs of emergency room treatment for the homeless people who are going to get their toes and fingers frozen off," O'Malley said.
Cheryldine White, manager of an I Can't, We Can Inc. drug treatment program and shelter at 4637 Park Heights Ave. that serves 24 women, said that the program depends on the $185 monthly checks to pay for the program's food, lights, water, heat and transportation.
If the TEMHA program is cut back, hers and similar drug treatment centers in the city might have to close, White said.
"Stop TEMHA and you stop God's will from working," said White. "It's not just about being clean from drugs, it's about people getting their whole lives together."