LEWISTON — Much has been made about Somali reliance on public assistance over the years. Since 2001, the larger community has struggled with questions concerning the city’s ability and desire to support recently arrived immigrants.
Discussion at the first major public meeting held to discuss the swelling Somali population, in the Lewiston Armory on May 14, 2002, focused on housing and social programs.
And, in a widely scrutinized letter published Oct. 4, 2002, former Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond wrote, “The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances … Our city is maxed out financially, physically, and emotionally.”
Last month, Mayor-elect Robert Macdonald gave his own sentiments on the subject at a public debate: “I have no problem with people from any country coming over, as long as they come here to work... This is a poor community. We’re not as well-heeled as the people down south yet we have been chosen to support, for a portion of our taxes, to go to these people.”
“I believe Somalis don't come here for welfare,” said Amina Muse, a receptionist for the Department of Health and Human Services and herself a Somali refugee.
“We didn't come here for our interest," she said. "There is something going on in our country.”
Still, there is no denying that the Somali and refugee community has received steady assistance from Lewiston, beginning nearly as soon as the first families arrived here. “Somalis have large families, and they bring their children with them when they come from Somalia. So larger families need more assistance,” Muse said.
That assistance is critical during their first few years in America as Somalis “catch up” on language, culture and lifestyle, Muse said. And they are thankful for it. “We got assistance from one of the greatest countries in the world.”
But how much money goes to Somalis and other refugees who have made Lewiston their home since 2001? Where does it come from and how do people receive it?
The truth is that Lewiston has received an enormous amount of state and federal funding in addition to what is spent by the city, although city officials say it is still not enough. By at least one account, the city has actually benefited financially from the growth of the refugee population, although tracking funds received for and allocated to refugees across the city is next to impossible.
General Assistance is typically allocated for rent, or food and essential personal items, Lewiston Social Services Director Sue Charron said. The city is reimbursed by the state for 50 percent of all GA spending.
In order to receive GA funding from the city, those in need must fill out an application, meet in person with a city caseworker, and show bills and proof of spending from the previous month, Charron said.
If working less than full time, a recipient must also register at the CareerCenter, and may be required to participate in educational opportunities (including English language classes) that would increase his or her ability to get a job, or do work for the city as part of a “workfare” program.
The process for application and approval is exactly the same for Somalis as for everyone else, Charron said. “Someone comes in and applies for assistance; they show us that they’re in need, they’re living in Lewiston or want to live in Lewiston, then we assist them."
She seemed offended by the notion that some might still think — in 2011 — that Somalis get preferential treatment. “Some people seem to have ‘tunnel vision.’ They just aren’t willing to listen to what’s real,” she said. “I’m just so tired of the myths. Eighty-five percent of the population is still the good-old American folks who come in here.”
The GA budget in particular has been fluid over the years.
In fiscal 2002, refugee recipients received 52 percent of overall General Assistance payouts, Charron said. That percentage dropped steadily but remained more than 30 percent through fiscal 2006. In 2001 and 2002, serving Somali clients was a challenge, Charron said. “I would say we were unprepared for the amount of folks that came in and at the pace they came in.”
“You had to learn about who was eligible for (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), who wasn’t eligible for TANF because of their status. It was amazing. It was amazing.” She said. “It was very, very stressful.”
By 2009, the percentage of municipal GA expenditures on refugees — primarily, but not all, Somali — was less than 16 percent. Since then, it has increased somewhat, to about 24 percent in fiscal year 2011. The rise is due in part to an increased number of asylum seekers who require greater assistance than other refugees due to their legal status, Charron said.
In terms of actual dollars, GA spending on refugees has been fairly nonlinear. After distributing $180,233 to refugee recipients in 2002, the amount was $40,000-$70,000 less every year until 2010, well into the economic crisis. For three years, from 2007 to 2009, the annual amount was less than $100,000.
In the past two years, the dollar amount has risen, hitting $222,920 in fiscal year 2011, the highest ever.
Since 2001, GA expenditures have risen every year, from $169,441 in 2001 to $932,783 in 2011. The largest increase came in fiscal 2010, when total GA spending jumped by nearly $300,000 from the previous year, with expenditures on refugees rising by $100,000 and accounting for 21 percent of all spending.
Today, the General Assistance office employs several Somali caseworkers, and serving refugee clients has become easier. “It’s like second nature now, it really is," Charron said. "It’s not that it isn’t hard work, and it isn’t extra work."
City caseworkers will refer GA applicants to state and federal assistance programs when they are eligible, and many Somalis have been shifted from city GA to programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Charron said.
TANF benefits are available to eligible recipients for five years total, and are administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. Other programs that refugees may be eligible for include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, formerly known as food stamps, and Refugee Cash Assistance, available for eight months to those with legal refugee status. Eligible families with children usually get TANF; cash assistance is generally given to childless adults.
According to research by Ismael Ahmed and Catherine Besteman, a Colby College professor and a prominent scholar of Somalia and Somalis in Maine, between 2007 and 2010 “lawfully admitted noncitizen residents,” including Somali refugees, typically accounted for about 7 percent of monthly TANF spending in Lewiston-Auburn, and less than 4 percent of food stamps.
DHHS does not track the ethnicity of recipients, but it does collect data on their primary language. In September 2011, 17,722 individuals received benefits in Lewiston from at least one of the 22 DHHS-administered programs, including Medicare, TANF, RCA and food stamps. Eleven percent were Somali speakers, said Barbara Van Burgel, director of the Maine DHHS Office for Family Independence.
Affordable housing is another piece of the puzzle. The three areas with the most concentrated Somali populations are the Hillview and River Valley housing complexes, and downtown Lewiston, said Lewiston Police Department’s Community Resource Team, based at the Bates Street substation.
Hillview is owned and operated by the Lewiston Housing Authority. It consists of 3-, 4- and 5-bedroom units. Of 450 residents, about 60-65 percent are Somali, say resource team officers, who work with members of the Somali community on a daily basis. River Valley, a privately owned project that accepts Section 8 vouchers, houses 915 people, again with 60-65 percent being Somali.
But overall, Somali families do not saturate the city’s affordable housing programs, which are federally funded, said Jim Dowling, executive director of the Lewiston Housing Authority. “The biggest impact within Lewiston Housing Authority has been on large family holdings,” he said.
Beyond Hillview, the high-water mark has been about 10 percent in LHA programs, Dowling said. Most Section 8 housing in the city falls under the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which allows recipients to select their own houses or apartments. Voucher-holders pay 30 percent of their income after taxes and some deductions for rent, and the voucher covers the difference.
“There's a huge demand for these Section 8 vouchers, and often the waiting list is closed,” Dowling said. It was closed when the first Somalis arrived here in 2001, and didn’t open again until 2003. It also opened in 2007, 2010, and in late November 2011, for about a week each time, perhaps two. Whenever it has opened the waiting list for housing vouchers in the past decade, LHA has received 400-500 applicants within the first five days, about 50 percent from Somalis, Dowling said.
The growth of the Somali community in Lewiston has increased competition for Section 8 vouchers, Dowling said, adding that the program has grown as a whole since 2001.
All applicants are on an even playing field, he said. “We've never given special treatment to Somali families.”
Another obvious expense for the city has been in the school system. The citywide student population has risen by about 100 pupils a year since 2006 and is projected to continue to rise at that pace over the next decade.
The growth of the English Language Learners program has been particularly startling, going from about 25 students in early 2001 to 995 students by February 2011. At least 23 languages (including Albanian, Bengali, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and a number of African languages) are spoken by students in Lewiston schools, but 915 speak Somali. That comprises about a fifth of the overall student population.
The English Language Learners program had one teacher in 2000-01. This year, it employs 28 teachers, seven education technicians and six tutors. Two of the tutors and one of the ed techs are federally funded, but the rest are paid by the city. The Adult Education Center, too, has had to expand its operations to handle the need for adult English learners.
According to official records, a great deal of money been used over the decade to offset the costs of housing and educating a refugee population that arrived with very little. But the study by Besteman and Ahmed, completed in summer 2010, found that Lewiston had received more than $9 million from federal and private sources since 2001, directly because of the refugee demographic.
“Most of this funding goes to city agencies, nonprofits, hospitals and schools to support projects, programs and services that target refugees,” the report says. The $9 million figure includes TANF and food stamps, as well as grants for education, worker development programs and health organizations.
The report also indicates that the findings are likely an underestimate because nongovernment organizations that may have received funding to work with refugees participated in the study on a voluntary basis. Some may not have disclosed funding they received because of negative public sentiment toward the refugee community, Besteman said.
“The data suggest increased federal and private funds coming into L-A because of the presence of refugees has more than offset the costs incurred … in support of the New Mainer population,” the researchers wrote.
Still, city officials say that federal refugee policy is severely deficient and leaves smaller communities like Lewiston to shoulder an undue and unsustainable load, when it comes to supporting newly arrived refugees.
One issue is that Refugee Cash Assistance is only available to refugees still living in their original placement site. If a refugee leaves the community chosen for them by their resettlement agency within their first eight months in the country, the RCA funding stops and does not move with the refugee to their new hometown.
Mayor Larry Gilbert and Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau have been staunch supporters, defenders and allies of the Somali community over the years. Both have received praise from a variety of individuals within the local Somali community. But both are vocal critics of this federal policy.
"(The government) brings people in, then shifts the burden to small communities that don't have the resources,” said Gilbert, who in July traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify about Lewiston’s experience absorbing its refugee population before the Senate Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee.
“The federal government isn't living up to its responsibilities," Gilbert said. "And it needs to, and it needs to quickly."
Nadeau, a man passionate about Lewiston and its potential, becomes visibly agitated when discussing federal refugee policy.
The federal government undercuts the refugees it accepts by staggering sums, he said. Nadeau estimated that the government falls short by millions of dollars on spending for refugee English language learning programs, and by billions on job training. Instead, the government relies on individual municipalities to cover those costs, he said.
“You’re putting refugees in extremely challenging conditions” if you’re not giving them adequate job training, language and education opportunities, he said. “It’s asking an awful lot.”