Local advocates for the poor yesterday objected to new limits proposed by Mayor Marion Barry on emergency financial assistance, telling a D.C. City Council committee that the restrictions would mean disaster for many needy families.
"Emergency assistance is desperately needed. These are hard times," the Rev. Jack Woodard of St. Stephen & The Incarnation Church told the Human Services Committee. "We the church are doing what we can. We can't do more. Don't make the suffering harder by passing this bill."
Several groups also complained about what they described as delays and unresponsiveness by city workers in the current program.
Woodard gave an example of a woman who, he said, needed only $36 to stave off eviction, but could not get emergency assistance because of bureaucratic barriers. She and her daughter were evicted, then placed in the Pitts Hotel for homeless families, where the city is paying $2,550 a month for their shelter, he testified.
James Butts, the city's income maintenance administrator, said he could not confirm or deny the case cited by Woodard, although he said he would "hope that didn't happen." Stopping evictions "is one of our highest priorities" and such cases are supposed to be handled quickly, he said.
Department of Human Services Director James A. Buford said limits on the emergency program are necessary to focus available city resources on the neediest individuals.
There now is no limit on the amount of aid or on the income of persons receiving it under the emergency assistance program, which is designed to help people out of a one-time financial crisis.
The mayor's proposed bill would establish both income and asset limits, tied to federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children standards. With the proposed changes, people could be made to sell their assets, such as a car or house, to raise funds to help themselves out of a crisis before they are granted emergency assistance, DHS officials testified.
The plan would limit rent or mortgage payments to $500, utilities and security deposit aid to $300, and moving expenses to $180. Childless individuals would become ineligible for the aid unless they were elderly or disabled.
"This narrower criteria is intended to eliminate that category of applicants that is the least sympathetic--the young professional who lost his job and turns to the department for assistance to pay his condominium fee or mortgage," Buford said.
Christopher R. Whittingham, speaking for Neighborhood Legal Services, said few people now getting aid fit that description, but about 25 percent of those now served are needy but childless individuals, who would become ineligible under the limits.
Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) said the proposed limits are too stringent and that people in temporary distress should not have to sell assets. He suggested that rent aid go up to $1,000. This would cost the city much less than the $80 a night it now pays to shelter homeless families, he said.