More bad luck for Utah's poorest
Starting at the first of next year, poor, disabled Utahns will no longer be able to apply for a small state stipend to help pay their rent and afford medication, a change that advocates say guarantees those in need will end up on the streets.
The state program known as General Assistance has been overwhelmed with surging requests as its budget shrank over the past few months.
To keep the program afloat, state officials said Tuesday they will deny any new applications after December 31. How long the roughly 1,100 people currently on the program will continue to receive their monthly $261 check remains unclear.
"There's a possibility we could run out of money by the end of March," said Curt Stewart, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
The General Assistance program is designed to serve as a short-term bridge to help mentally or physically disabled people survive until they can begin receiving federal disability benefits. Only those unable to work qualify for the program. This fall about 2,000 people a month applied for the program; just 10 percent were approved.
The $261 monthly stipend may be the only means someone has of paying rent, buying toilet paper or pain medication.
"It's not a lot of money, but it does help them to survive," said Melissa Smith, an advocate with the Community Action Partnership of Utah. "These are people who are not going to be OK if we don't lend them a hand."
Randy Carrillo has been relying on the program, but his benefits ran out this month and he says he is now on the brink of becoming homeless.
Suffering from a chronic back condition and several heart attacks, he can't work, he's on 13 kinds of medication and has, thus far, been unable to qualify for disability benefits.
The General Assistance benefits he was promised were scaled back because of state budget cuts.
"Basically I'm going to be homeless here real shortly. And I don't have enough money to even buy gas," he said. "Lots of times I thought of just taking my sleeping pills and not waking up. ... I'm suffering. And nobody gives a crap."
The duration of General Assistance benefits has already been scaled back from two years to one and caseworker positions have been eliminated. Hundreds lost benefits this August. Staff may stop doing face-to-face case management meetings with recipients.
Gov. Gary Herbert's staff was noncommittal regarding the future of General Assistance when the governor released his budget proposal earlier this month, explaining it was an issue that needed to be worked through.
Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said the Department of Workforce Services has provided a "remarkable" level of services to General Assistance clients, given the tight budget.
"The program still faces challenges in meeting increased needs," Welling said. "DWS has assured the governor that it will continue G.A. benefits to existing customers as long as possible, while also evaluating possible solutions for [the upcoming budget year]."
Herbert's recommended budget did not propose any additional funding for the GA program next year.
General Assistance has consistently come under scrutiny because it is exclusively funded with state dollars. Yet advocates often point to the fact that the state does receive some reimbursement if a person eventually receives federal benefits.
Smith says, at this point, the program's survival "doesn't look good at all."
But cutting the budget for programs like General Assistance doesn't necessarily save money in the long run, Smith said.
"These people don't just go away when the caseloads get cut. They end up going on the street. They end up in hospitals, they end up in police stations," she said. "It still is a cost that we pay as a society. We can either pay that in helping them achieve some self-sufficiency or we can pay it in a punitive way."
The program for physically or mentally disabled people awaiting federal disability benefits is running out of money. The $261 monthly check to current recipients will continue, but no one can say for how long. New applications won't be accepted after Dec. 31.