Protesters criticize welfare program

by Max Rust

Thirty people demonstrated in front of the Hennepin County Government Center on Wednesday, chanting, waving signs and protesting a welfare program they say punishes the homeless.
Shouting phrases like “stop the torture of the poor” through a bullhorn, the protestors entered the building, marched up to the elevators, swarmed the government center’s 23rd floor and demanded to meet with Hennepin County officials.
Members of the Welfare Rights Committee, which sponsored the demonstration, said they have been trying for months to speak with Hennepin County officials responsible for carrying out public-assistance efforts. The committee says it wants officials to keep people on public assistance from losing portions of their welfare grants while living in shelters.
Job counselors, contracted by the county from nonprofit organizations, are currently responsible for helping welfare recipients move from welfare to work. Committee members say that because many job counselors are inefficient, laws protecting all homeless people from losing portions of their welfare grants should be enacted. This would improve homeless people’s chances of finding housing while on assistance.
Many people living in Minneapolis homeless shelters are forced to look for employment while simultaneously searching for housing.
According to laws in the Minnesota Family Investment Program — the state’s 1998 welfare reform plan — welfare recipients must work with job counselors and work or look for jobs to receive their full grant.
For people like Takeysha McMillan and her three children, that’s tough to do right now.
McMillan, 20, came to the Twin Cities three months ago from crime-ridden Gary, Ind., in hopes of finding a better life. Instead, she found an affordable-housing shortage and has lived in the 410 shelter in Minneapolis.
Having to look for work increases McMillan’s difficulty in finding an apartment in an already-tight Twin Cities housing market.
McMillan said it is also difficult for her to find work with decent pay because most well-paying jobs are on overnight shifts, when she must tend to her children. The welfare program doesn’t provide overnight child care, and the shelter she lives in requires her to be in by midnight.
“I’m 20 years old, and I’ve never been homeless,” said McMillan, who came to the Twin Cities because she heard about the booming economy. “If I knew Minneapolis was like this, I would have never come.”
McMillan’s case is similar to many people who live in homeless shelters.
As of May, 3,500 of the 44,000 Minnesota families receiving welfare grants had their funds cut. The average family grant is $619 a month in the form of food stamps, housing payments, cash and other benefits.
A Welfare Rights Committee survey of people living in Minneapolis homeless shelters illustrates the negative effects recent welfare-reform measures are having on poor families like McMillan’s.
According to the survey, 80 percent of the survey’s 66 respondents were told they must look for a job or work while homeless. Of these, 53 respondents said they did not have time to find housing while finding work or working.
The survey also noted that only six respondents said they received assistance in finding housing.
Despite these findings, Deborah Huskins, economic assistance director for Hennepin County, said she opposes exempting all homeless people from a cut in their welfare grants.
“A cookie-cutter approach to the difficult situations the families are in is not helpful,” Huskins said. “We really need to respond to what’s going on in each family.”
Huskins favors the current system, which relies on job counselors to help the homeless find jobs and places to live. She said this system helps recipients by encouraging a speedy move from welfare to work. People can only receive welfare grants for 60 months during their lifetime.
“Homelessness is an urgent problem that needs to be worked on but not in a way that disconnects (the recipients) from the rest of the program,” Huskins said.
But this counselor system doesn’t work, activists say.
“She doesn’t help me do anything,” said Derdra Allen of her job counselor. “If you go down to see her, you might as well be talking to yourself.”
Allen recently moved to Minneapolis from Chicago and has not received adequate job counseling.
When applying for an apartment, Allen had to meet the landlord for an application, but when she asked her job counselor for a ride, the counselor told her to ride the bus.
Since Allen is not allowed to leave her children alone in the shelter, she had to take them with her.
But the Minnesota Family Investment Program only issues her 20 bus tokens a month, and she had to use six to travel with her children to and from the landlord.
“How are you supposed to get housing when you don’t have time to find it? How are you supposed to find a job if you don’t have a house to stay in?” Allen asked.

Max Rust covers the community and welcomes comments [email protected]