ANNAPOLIS – With hypoglycemic diabetes, glaucoma and a lower back injury, Gustav Catchersid continued to work, against doctor’s orders, until he was laid off in October.
Now Catchersid, who’s been forced to stay in Baltimore shelters where his possessions were stolen, has received another blow. He won’t be getting help from the state Temporary Emergency Medical Housing Assistance program, although he qualifies, at least until July.
Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher McCabe announced Tuesday that the program’s cash benefits were suspended through June 30 for applicants processed on or after Dec. 15, 2003, to avoid a $5 million deficit. Those receiving benefits before the cutoff date will still receive regular payments.
The program issues $185 monthly to applicants who can’t work because of short- or long-term disability to help them pay rent or buy food, said Kevin Lindamood, spokesman for Health Care for the Homeless.
Catchersid, who applied Jan. 12, and more than 9,000 other applicants now face months of uncertainty.
“I’m close to a nervous breakdown,” Catchersid said. “I didn’t know (the benefit) was suspended until it was too late.”
Beginning July 1, the department will issue benefits to those approved during the suspension, but payments will not be retroactive, McCabe said.
The program will continue to help people apply for other benefits, but without the cash payments many applicants will not be able to find shelter or prepare food, Lindamood said.
The decision to freeze the benefit was one “we did not take lightly,” said McCabe, who also considered reducing the monthly payment to save money, but he said advocacy groups discouraged that plan.
The Social Security Administration reimburses cash payments for applicants who also qualify for Supplemental Security Income, but Richard Larson, policy research director for the Family Investment Administration, said only about 4,700 of the program’s 12,000 Maryland recipients are reimbursable, totaling about $5 million for the year.
Because some benefits are reimbursed, advocates say there is no reason why Gov. Robert Ehrlich shouldn’t intervene.
“It’s a chance for the governor to keep his campaign promise that he wouldn’t balance the budget at the expense of the most vulnerable,” said Lindamood.
There are a few ways to reinstate the benefit, said Peter Sabonis, attorney and director of The Homeless Persons Representation Project. The governor could include a deficiency appropriation, or redirection of funds, in the 2005 budget, emergency legislation could be passed or applicants could sue, Sabonis said.
State law prohibits the department from transferring funds for the program from other areas of the budget, Sabonis said. A deficiency appropriation would redirect part of the $200 million budget surplus for this fiscal year to the program, Sabonis said. However, the state projects a $700 million budget gap for 2005, including the carryover surplus.
Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s spokesman, said any funding for the program would be announced Jan. 21 with the budget.
McCabe said the slow federal reimbursement process is a national problem, and he has met with Social Security officials to emphasize that “this lengthy delay . . . really is impacting our ability to fund this program.”
Delays occur when applicants are rejected for federal disability benefits and then must appeal to the Social Security Administration, McCabe said.
Reimbursement now takes two years, McCabe said, leaving the program without liquidity to continue cash payments.
Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle said rates for processing applicants in Maryland have remained constant despite an increase in the number of applicants.