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L.A. County to pursue more federal aid for poorest residents [Updated]

February 9, 2010 |  4:14 pm

With Los Angeles County facing record levels of unemployment, and with more state welfare cuts looming, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to begin shifting responsibility for helping some of the most destitute to the federal government.

County officials set aside $7.2 million in this year’s budget to help general relief recipients though the difficult process of applying for federal disability assistance or finding work. They plan to use the funds to help beneficiaries get into stable housing, locate medical records and obtain the detailed health assessments they need to apply for supplementary security income or veterans’ benefits.

County officials say the program will be mutually beneficial. Instead of getting $221 a month in county-funded general relief, people with qualifying disabilities and little or no income could get up to $850 in supplemental security income. Instead of relying on county emergency rooms, they would become eligible for Medi-Cal.

L.A. County is projected to have nearly 100,000 general relief recipients by June, the highest level in more than a decade, as more jobs are lost and unemployment benefits run out. Faced with a persistent budget gap, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing cuts to state welfare programs that could increase the general relief rolls even further.

Even with one of the lowest cash-assistance rates of any urban county in the nation, payments to this population are expected to reach $200 million by the end of this fiscal year. Nearly $800 million more will be spent on other services for general relief recipients, including healthcare and law enforcement costs, according to county projections.

“That’s not some small potatoes,” said Supervisor Don Knabe, who submitted a motion in April calling for a restructuring of the general relief program. “While the effort is to save net county costs and to get them into the right program...at the end of the day the people who need these programs are going to get better treatment. So I think it’s a win-win.”

[Updated at 6 p.m.: County officials estimate as many as 60% of general relief recipients are homeless. A significant number also suffer mental and physical disabilities that can make it difficult for them to navigate the welfare system.

A pilot project that began under the county’s homelessness prevention program in 2006 found that general relief participants who received housing subsidies were twice as likely to find work or get approved for Supplemental Security Income. 

Central to the current plan is a decision to increase the number of subsidies available to those seeking employment or federal aid from 900 to 10,000 by December 2014. Recipients would be required to contribute $100 of each general relief check toward their housing costs and the county would provide an additional $400 month.

Community-based groups that work with the poor welcomed the approach Tuesday, saying that getting the chronically homeless into stable housing would make it easier to link them to services that can help them find jobs and obtain benefits.

“While the grant levels aren’t going up ... the program itself I think will assist many more people in successfully getting on to another stage in their lives, and not be dependent on this resource which you can’t really live on,” said Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership, which participated in a working group that produced most of the proposals approved Tuesday and at an earlier board meeting in October.

Two pilot projects are planned to test different ways in which community organizations can help the county sign up more general relief recipients for federal aid. County social workers told the board they have already helped thousands to do this and want to remain part of the process. 

Among those who recently moved from county to federal benefits is Mark Kelly, a military veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I went eight months on the streets in the same clothes," Kelly told the board.  "Now I'm in a system that works if you are willing to work it."

County officials believe the program will pay for itself and expect to recoup $14.3 million in savings from the $7.2 million investment. But given the magnitude of the expansion in housing subsidies, board members were anxious to include review mechanisms.

Although the board rejected a proposal by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to appoint a dedicated oversight group, it approved a recommendation that the county’s chief executive and director of public social services report back to them in June 2012 on the outcomes. The number of subsidies in effect at that point is not allowed to increase without authorization from the board.

“We have a very obvious stake in this,” said Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes nearly four in 10 general relief recipients. “The good news from my point of view is that [general relief] is being made more efficient and more cost-effective and therefore it will do a better job of servicing more people.”]

-- Alexandra Zavis at the County Hall of Administration