Towns must pay when homeless taken in by cities say state welfare officials

Nov. 13—Towns without motels or other stopgap housing measures must pay the cost of benefits for residents who move to other cities for temporary shelter, under a new ethics policy adopted by New Hampshire's municipal welfare officials.

The change, agreed to in June by the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association, addresses concerns of officials in cities such as Manchester. For years, larger communities have complained about shouldering the burden of poor people who move from rural New Hampshire to the cities.

"There's a feeling throughout the state with cities and towns that really the argument's about fairness and finding common ground," said Todd Marsh, Rochester's welfare director and president of the Welfare Administrators Association.

Although not law, the policy is expected to change how municipalities and their welfare officials deal with housing challenges.

Under state law, the town where a person lives is responsible for their welfare if they move to another community to live in a homeless shelter. The new policy expands that to other housing options, including motels, hospitals or treatment programs, Marsh said.

Even when the resident establishes himself in permanent housing, such as an apartment, the former town should cover their needs for 30 days, the policy states.

Other aspects of the policy state:

A welfare official should not encourage or pressure a resident to discontinue their residency and move to another community. The town's welfare budget should not fund a move unless the beneficiary has good reason to move.

If a resident on assistance is moving, an official from the town should contact the new community's welfare official and explain the reason for the move. Generally, the town of origin will be responsible for 30 days of benefits.

If a person leaves a shelter or motel, their town of origin will be responsible for them for 30 days.

Anyone who pays for their housing for 30 days and then needs help from local welfare will be the responsibility of the new community.

Marsh said the policy reflects the practice in Seacoast communities for years. But other regions of the state may see less cooperation.

The policy comes as the federal government winds down a program that provided $245 million in pandemic-related spending for housing in New Hampshire. Many beneficiaries have been staying in hotels and likely will be turning to town and city welfare departments once their housing benefits run dry.

In Manchester, 28 families living in hotels have been notified that their Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funding stopped on Nov. 1.

Only eight have ties to Manchester, said Charleen Michaud, the city's welfare director. The other 20 are being referred back to their towns, Michaud told Manchester aldermen earlier this month.

Michaud expects the city will have to continue paying hotel bills for three of the eight. The city's eligibility rules are generally stricter than the federal government ERAP programs, she said.

Need about to increase

In Allenstown, the welfare director welcomed the new policy.

"To me, it says 'Yes, it's OK to use the resources in these other places,'" said Trish Caruso, who oversees the town's $24,000 budget for welfare.

She said Allenstown has no homeless shelter or motels, so she must rely on resources in Concord or Manchester.

Caruso, who is on the executive board of the Welfare Association, said some welfare directors in smaller towns feel pressure from selectmen to keep spending down. Some towns require welfare directors to get approval from selectmen before authorizing benefits, she said.

Caruso, like Marsh, said the federal ERAP program has been good for her bottom line. With only one year left in this fiscal year year, she has spent only 28% of her budget.

But that can quickly change if Allenstown must place a family in a hotel. Most hotels are charging $125 a night, so a week's stay approaches $1,000.

On Oct. 20, officials announced that the federal government would provide no more funding for ERAP. Just before the election, the all-Democratic congressional delegation announced that it had secured another $2.4 million in funding statewide.

But officials say they have not received the money and have not halted the phaseout of ERAP.

"It was pretty clear if it was an emergency program it was going to end at some point," said Donnalee Lozeau, chief executive of Southern New Hampshire Services, a community action program that administers ERAP in the Manchester-Nashua area.

Her agency is providing "wraparound services" to help ERAP recipients obtain assistance and self sufficiency, she said. Ideally, ERAP provided a do-over for recipients, enabling them to pay off rent and utility bills they were behind on and to seek self-improvement, such as workforce development programs.

Now they likely will have to start paying at least a portion of their rent or hotel bills.

"Many people are going to need a reset with budgeting," Marsh said. "They're out of their routine for paying rent."