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Orange County revamps assistance for indigent following lawsuit

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In June of last year, after being jobless and homeless for nearly two years, Orange County native Edwin Mankinen decided to apply for $239 in monthly general relief benefits, a cash payment also known as general assistance that is offered by each California county to indigent residents. 

But when he went to apply for the funds, Mankinen said he was repeatedly stymied and rebuffed. Other applicants had similar complaints, prompting a class-action lawsuit [PDF] filed in Orange County. Mankinen is the lead plaintiff in the case, which claims that the county has “systematically and unlawfully denied or discouraged” eligible people from obtaining general relief, according to the complaint.

“I never thought that this would be something that I would have to do,” Mankinen told California Watch. “I applied for general relief because I was homeless. I had no transportation, no place to live, and I was at the end of my rope. The economy was so bad and not having a car, it was hard for me to get a job. I had no place to live and to keep myself in a condition where I could go and look for work.”

Stephanie Haffner, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit, said Orange County's general relief program often is the last resort for those who apply for funds.

“There were people who needed help and who weren’t getting it and who were also profoundly discouraged,” said Haffner, who works for the Los Angeles-based Western Center on Law and Poverty. 

Orange County also had high rates of general relief denials compared with other counties, according to Stephen Ronfeldt, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Project, which is also representing general relief applicants in the case.

Ronfeldt said Orange County had an average of 636 people on county-funded general relief each month and approved 15 percent of the applicants in 2011. Meanwhile, the county approved 65,775, or 66 percent, of the applications for state and federally subsidized food stamps last year.

State law mandates that counties provide general relief to their most vulnerable residents. But because the counties don’t receive any state or federal funding for the program, they are able to tailor general relief programs to local needs. Many counties require employable recipients to show that they are looking for a job and to perform work assigned by the county in exchange for the cash benefit. In Orange County, the payments are capped at three months within a 12-month period for residents deemed employable.

But Haffner said that in administering their programs, counties are required by law to provide “prompt and humane aid.”

Jeffrey Richard, senior assistant Orange County counsel, said the county decided not to litigate the case, citing the cost of resolving the issue through the court system. Instead, it has worked closely with attorneys representing Mankinen and the other plaintiffs to craft a settlement agreement [PDF]; the court will decide whether it will give final approval of the settlement tomorrow.

The proposed settlement increases the monthly benefit by $38 per month, a change the county implemented in July. The agreement also simplifies the process by reducing the number of documents and verifications required to prove eligibility and revises procedures for accommodating people with disabilities, among other changes.

By agreeing to the settlement, the county does not admit liability or confirm the accuracy of the lawsuit's claims. 

Representatives for the county said the general relief program has faced challenges during the recession as more people have requested aid at the same time that the county budget has shrunk. 

“General relief (programs) in many counties have been under tremendous pressure during the recession,” said Wendy Aquin, the Orange County Social Services Agency’s division director for adult services and assistance programs. “Our caseloads have grown by over 400 percent since 2007-2008. There were definitely ways in which we can improve our customer service, but when a program is under that kind of stress, it is not always possible to provide the level of individualized attention that you would like to be able to.”

In Mankinen’s case, it took about a month and a half before he began receiving aid. To apply, the county unnecessarily made him file a 2010 tax return and get documentation from his last employer about the hours he had worked, the complaint said. When Mankinen came back with his paperwork, he was told that he didn’t qualify because he had voluntarily left his last job as a warehouse worker due to back and knee problems. He didn’t receive written notice of the denial, and no one told him that he could appeal the decision.

A legal aid lawyer helped Mankinen challenge the denial, and because he has disabilities that make it hard for him to find work, the attorney also persuaded the county to continue providing him with funds until his federal disability application is processed.

While he waited for his general relief application to be approved, Mankinen slept on the streets or in parks, churches or train stations and went to soup kitchens to supplement the $180 he receives in food stamps each month.

“They didn’t offer me any emergency aid or housing,” he said of the county’s Social Services Agency. “I told the workers I have no place to go. They told me I could hang out at the civic center in Santa Ana until it was time for me to come back.”

The procedure was “demeaning,” Mankinen added. “They made me feel beneath them. They asked for unnecessary paperwork, and it was a time-consuming process.”

He said he spends the money he receives from general relief on cellphone service, bus passes, medication, hygiene products and the occasional pair of socks.

Mankinen, who turned 51 last week, said that without a college diploma and with limited tech skills, along with an ailing back and knees, work has been hard to come by. He remembers a time when he was able to more easily pick up a job as a logger, plumber or construction worker. In recent months, he’s been taking free computer classes, which he hopes will help him find a new line of work.

“I’d like to do something in the clerical field, like an administrative office assistant,” he said. “Ultimately, I’d like to be able to write. I have a lot of journals of stories I’ve written over the years. I love hearing and telling a good story. A lot of stuff I have is stories of being on the street. I’ve seen and done so many things. It’s a lot to think and write about.”

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