About 300 homeless people, advocates and students gathered outside the State House in Annapolis yesterday to sing, shout, pray, wave signs and plead for the state to end a freeze on cash assistance for low-income, disabled people. Damon Heard, 33, a caseworker at the nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless, leaned toward a microphone in the center of the crowd and rhymed a tune he wrote for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as a friend jammed beside him on a guitar.
Around Heard, beneath a statue of Thurgood Marshall, scores of protesters waved neon yellow and orange signs reading: "People over Profit! ... Being Homeless is not a Crime!" and "Restore the TEMHA program!"
They were calling on the state to resume approvals for the Transitional Emergency, Medical and Housing Assistance (TEMHA) program, which pays low-income disabled people $185 a month.
"Freezing TEMHA, you know it ain't right," Heard sang. "Nothing but peace, love and street compassion. Can you hear us, governor's mansion?"
State officials instituted Jan. 12 a six-month halt in admissions to the program, explaining that an unexpected surge in applicants - caused in part by a slumping economy and a slowdown in approvals for federal disability - threatened to put the state's program $5 million in the hole by July 1.
More than 12,000 people a year, many of them homeless men suffering from mental illness and trying to recover from addiction, use the monthly checks for rent, to obtain treatment and to buy food and clothing.
Officials with the state Department of Human Resources said they are studying the possibility of resuming the program, but limiting admission to people with long-term disabilities and excluding those with short-term disabilities.
"We understand [the protesters'] concerns, and we are working hard to find a way to try to make sure that people who need services receive services," said department spokesman Norris West.
Health Care for the Homeless, a 19-year-old clinic based at 111 Park Ave., sent three busloads of homeless people and workers to the rally yesterday.
They were joined by three more buses and several cars sent from eight Baltimore-area schools, including Garrison Forest, Boys' Latin, Patterson High and Towson High.
Dewey Hector, 42, a homeless man from Baltimore, said he sees a similarity between the cuts to disabled people and the threatened cuts to city schools, with both being forced by governments that lack concern for the most vulnerable people.
"I could have used the TEMHA money to eat and to get a place to live. As it is now, I'm in a shelter," Hector said. "I think that taking care of people who can't take care of themselves - the homeless and the children - is an important role of government."
Jeff Singer, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said that the state eliminated a form of cash assistance for disabled people 10 years ago, forcing advocates to fight to win restoration of a more limited form of assistance, which is now called TEMHA.
"It took us an entire year to restore it last time, but we did it," Singer said.