Men Claim Calif. County Spurns Homeless

     BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Kern County’s Department of Human Services refuses to help homeless people who seek temporary aid, two men claim in court.
     Hans Mills, Danny Bowen and California Partnership, a nonprofit, sued Kern County, its Board of Supervisors, and the county Department of Human Services Director Pat Cheadle, in Kern County Superior Court. They allege constitutional violations and violations of state welfare, disability and discrimination laws.
     “Hans Mills and Danny Bowen are two of the many homeless, hungry and indigent residents of Kern County who sought assistance from the county’s General Assistance program,” the complaint states. “But when they went to the Department of Human Services (‘DHS’) to seek temporary assistance, they were turned away, discouraged from seeking help, and asked to fulfill illegal requirements that few, if any, indigent individuals could fulfill on their own. They were also asked to perform work that would have gone to a county employee if he were hired, without guarantee of payment of wages or aid. Despite their best efforts to fulfill the county’s requirements, they were not given aid.
     “Their stories are not unique. Most indigents who seek aid in Kern County are unable to meet the county’s unlawful requirements. Of the more than 1,500 homeless individuals residing in Kern County on any given night, only an average of 50 receive General Assistance at any given time.
     Plaintiff California Partnership is a Los-Angeles based nonprofit that seeks to reduce poverty by, among other things, educating leaders in low-income areas to speak up in local politics and advocating for the homeless to gain access to medical care and food.
     State law requires every county to give General Assistance to its poorest residents: those who are homeless, jobless, have no resources, and do not qualify for other needy programs.
     Counties establish their own eligibility criteria for the program, but their standards must comply with state law. Counties may not require applicants to provide certain types of third-party information, “may not stop assistance for more than six months, nor sanction individuals for violating the rules without good cause,” and cannot force applicants to work to be eligible for aid, according to the complaint.
     In its General Assistance program, Kern County uses a voucher system that allots $266 for a single-person household, with $40 automatically deducted for medical care, according to the complaint.
     But the county has not updated its program since 1996 to reflect inflation and rising costs of living, Mills and Bowen say.
     Since a CalWORKS grant for a single person in Kern County is $300, they claim that the aid Kern’s voucher system provides is not enough to meet a poor person’s subsistence needs.
     They claim that Kern County “continues to impose unlawful application delays that preclude Kern County residents in critical need from getting help promptly and humanely by failing to process applications within thirty calendar days.”
     The county’s eligibility requirements are unlawfully stringent and delay aid to those in need, the men claim. They say the county makes applicants attend work orientations even if they have physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from working; forces applicants to do job searches and obtain signatures from the “hiring agent” to verify that they completed the search; requires them to work a certain number of hours with no guarantee of aid or wages as reimbursement; and denies aid to people who do not meet the work-search requirements.
     Even if someone has good cause not to fulfill the work requirement, the men say, the county still sanctions them and denies them aid for 30 days.
     The county requires people who apply as “unemployable” to have their disability status verified if they were recently treated by Kern Medical Center, but not if they received treatment from any other medical facility, according to the complaint. If people cannot get their disability status verified, they are forced to apply as “employable” even if they are unable to work.
     Kern County has no screening process to identify applicants with disabilities and does not require its staff to “provide reasonable accommodations to General Assistance applicants and recipients with disabilities in order to assist them in meeting program requirements,” the complaint adds.
     Mills says he became homeless in 2009, and was living at a homeless shelter, eating at soup kitchens, and seeing a psychiatrist every month for his disability. When he found out about Kern’s General Assistance program more than two years later, he says, he applied but was told by a Department of Human Services worker that he would qualify only for a $34 hygiene voucher.
     Despite the worker’s “discouraging statements,” Mills says, he returned to fill out an application for rental assistance. He says one question asked if he was “under doctor’s care,” and since he did not understand that this included psychiatric treatment, he marked “no,” causing his application to be processed as “employable.”
     Though he later did apply as “unemployable,” with verification of his disability from his psychiatrist, he says, the county claimed he never applied for the General Assistance program. When he insisted that he had applied, the department told him he had been denied because he failed to do a work search, that he could not appeal the denial, and had to reapply.
     Mills says he applied again, and during the two months when that application was pending, he was granted supplemental Social Security aid, so Kern told him “he was no longer in need of GA [General Assistance].”
     Bowen tells a similar tale. He says he became homeless in 2012 and was living with friends and eating at soup kitchens when he applied for General Assistance.
     “He applied for GA about three different times, but he was denied verbally and in writing. He was told he was denied for different reasons each time such as living in a transitional housing program that provides food, living with his friend, or because he was not found ‘unemployable,” the complaint states.
     After trying unsuccessfully to apply as unemployable, Bowen says, he applied as “employable” and asked to waive the third-party verification documents for good cause since he had no doctor to verify his disability. When the department again denied his claim, he says, he appealed, and the hearing officer told the department to process his application as “employable.”
     “He is still trying but has had difficulty completing the additional activities that are required to obtain any GA benefits as an ’employable’ applicant. His first inquiry for GA began around September 2012 and he has been attempting to obtain financial assistance for food, hygiene products, clothing and transportation for over a year,” the complaint states.
     Kern County Human Services Director Cheadle did not return emails seeking comment.
     Bowen and Mills seek a court order forcing Kern to give them retroactive relief, a declaration that the county is violating its state-mandated duty to care for its poorest residents, and an injunction preventing the defendants from denying relief to Bowen.
     They are represented by Richard Rothschild with the Western Center on Law & Poverty, of Los Angeles.

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