MACHIAS — Maine’s emergency food assistance program to assure that people did not go hungry when they lost electricity comes to an end Friday amid mixed reviews from municipal officials.
Thousands of storm-stricken state residents applied for the $50 food vouchers after the Department of Human Services announced the Special Food Benefit Program on Jan. 12. The progam was in response to the Jan. 8 ice storm that left more than a half-million Mainers without power for days.
Interviews with town office employees and general assistance administrators in 16 towns indicate that while the vouchers were sorely needed by some applicants, they were also an invitation for people to abuse the system. Many told tales of people who took advantage of the program by going to several different towns and obtaining a voucher from each.
“I heard about a woman telling people at a local grocery store she’d gotten $150 and was doing her whole week’s shopping with it,” said one town clerk in Washington County.
Others spoke of people who came to the town office with the understanding the money was to replace freezer food that had thawed and gone bad. When they were told they had to be without cash or liquid assets, they said they didn’t qualify.
“I had to force one senior citizen to take a voucher,” said Shirley McCall, the town clerk in Alexander.”She said she didn’t qualify because she had $8 in her wallet. She had that money because she cut her medicine for Parkinson’s disease in half so she’d have enough money left to buy food.”
Criticism of the program centers on what some say were confusing eligibility guidelines and differences in how towns handled the program.
According to a DHS press release on the program, “the Special Food Benefit is for applicants without power for at least 24 hours and who are without cash, assets, or insurance to allow them to immediately provide for emergency food on their own.”
That message didn’t come across in radio announcements, including descriptions of the program by Gov. Angus King, said Mary-Anne Chalila, the director of health and welfare for Bangor.
“Unfortunately, the governor didn’t make it clear that you couldn’t have any money in the bank,” Chalila said. “We turned very few people away although we did turn people away who had money in the bank.”
Chalila said she issued 316 vouchers between Jan. 13 and close of business Tuesday.
Gloria Moore, the chairwoman of the overseeers of the poor in Steuben, said the town has 800 to 900 residents and issued 112 vouchers between Monday, Jan. 12, and Thursday, Jan. 15. Most of Steuben’s power came back on the night of Jan. 10. Moore said Steuben had to hire another person in the town office to handle the volume of applicants. At one point, she called DHS and asked the grounds under which she could turn down an applicant.
“They told me if I challenged it, I was on my own,’ Moore said.
Hampden Town Manager Marie Baker said she didn’t know about the program until she received a call from Sen. Betty Mitchell, R-Etna, late in the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 12. By that Wednesday, DHS called and told her the program had become “a real mess” and that municipalities were going to have to make a decision on whether to issue town vouchers.
“We had 10 or 12 irate people because they didn’t get one, but we all lost the food in our freezers,” Baker said.
Jonesport Selectman Gloria Feeney said DHS in Machias called her at home to tell her about the program Jan. 12. Feeney said she and another town employee came into the town office Wednesday morning, but had to leave because of carbon monoxide fumes. The Fire Department had started its truck engines to make sure they could respond to emergencies and the wind had blown the fumes into the town office, she said.
Feeney said she took applications in her home and shut down the program Friday after DHS told her she could quit when the crisis was over. Feeney said she has had a lot of criticism, but she did her best and never turned anyone down. Some people read the criteria about not having any cash and said they couldn’t take the money.
“The town office and the selectmen always take the brunt of something like this,” Feeney said.”I can tell you if they are going to have a program like this again, I won’t sign this voucher.”
Lubec Town Manager Victoria Dyer said she came under criticism for giving out vouchers to people who other people thought didn’t deserve them. Dyer said she issued more than 700 vouchers for $50 but she knows towns that were giving out $100 and $200 vouchers.
“This wasn’t the great giveaway here,” Dyer said.”We gave vouchers to anyone who qualified based on a sit-down interview. DHS told us to use our discretion.”
Kathy Goode, the welfare caseworker for Old Town, said she believes that, all in all, the program was a learning experience. The storm brought Maine people together in their communities as well as bringing out “some of the bad” in people, she said.
“I had a lot of senior citizens who have a lot of pride,” Goode said. “This reached a lot of those people who really did need it.”
Sue Dustin, the assistant director of the DHS Bureau of Family Independence, said the department received comments about towns that responded too much as well as comments about towns that didn’t respond.
“There are always people who are going to take advantage of programs,” Dustin said.”We tried to develop something that could be used as easily as possible because we knew people were hurting. We wanted to get something out to people.”
Dustin said the money for the vouchers is coming out of the department’s general assistance budget. DHS won’t know whether it needs to go to the Legislature for more money until the program is over, she said.