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PUBLIC AID : County Cutbacks Threaten Relief Payments to Indigent


An effort by Los Angeles County officials to reduce local public assistance payments could put some of life's basic necessities, including food, out of reach for many poor and homeless residents, homeless advocates say.

Officials from Los Angeles and other California counties have urged state legislators to pass a law limiting the amount they give in general relief cash payments. The state Senate has already passed the bill, but the legislation has been held over in the Assembly for consideration when legislators return from a summer recess later this month.

All counties are required by law to provide general relief, also known as general assistance, to the indigent. The county aid program includes a cash stipend, which is set at $212 in Los Angeles County, and medical services.

While statewide legislation is the most sweeping general relief reform that counties have sought, local aid has been on the cost-cutting block for several years in Los Angeles. County officials lowered monthly general relief payments by $73 in 1993--from $285 to $212.

They argue that the county provides medical care to local aid recipients and should be allowed to lower their stipends.

However, public interest groups sued the county, which later lost the case on appeal. An appeals court judge ordered the county to reinstate its general relief stipend of $285 a month but did not specify when the payments must be increased.

Local aid is crucial for about 90,000 recipients who live in Los Angeles County--about 24,000 of them on the Westside, social service workers say.

"This is a question of life and death situations," said Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions, a long-term rehabilitation program in West Los Angeles for homeless veterans. "What it's able to do is to keep someone alive."

Yet Los Angeles County and other municipalities in California face enormous budget gaps that they must close, said Victor Pottorff, deputy executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties. The cuts have to come from somewhere, he said.

"Supervisors need as much flexibility as they can get so they can make priority decisions," said Pottorff. "The supervisors will decide to what degree they want to provide general relief. They may not utilize the provisions."

Bearing the largest general assistance caseload in the state, Los Angeles County has been the heavyweight behind the bill that would allow counties to reduce the cash they pay by up to $40.

The bill would also allow indigent county residents, who now can receive general relief indefinitely, to get the payments only for three months during any 12-month period. Some who collect would be required to undergo drug and alcohol testing.

And the legislation cuts the stipend by up to 25% for recipients who share housing with other people.

The proposed cutbacks would make it nearly impossible for most indigent people to get jobs and find long-term housing, said Wanda Brown, director of human services for the Santa Monica Salvation Army Shelter.

The Salvation Army requires that the people in its shelters save between 60% and 80% of their incomes toward long-term housing, clothes and other necessities. Serving as a makeshift bank, the Salvation Army collects and holds the money.

Most of what the residents save comes from general relief, Brown said.

Cutting back general relief "means that someone who is homeless will stay homeless," Brown said. "It will be a major problem for our people to make the next step."

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