Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
Last week, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew appealed to state lawmakers to pass the LePage administration’s plan to slash $65 million from programs that provide food, shelter and health care to thousands of impoverished Mainers while simultaneously delivering a monumental income tax cut for the top 2 percent of income earners. 

“This budget is intended to support a reduction in the overall state budget in the Department of Health and Human Services in order to reduce the tax on this state to promote greater job opportunities to individuals to help support them on a pathway to prosperity, to employment and self-sufficiency and prosperity,” said Mayhew. “That is the focus of these reforms and these changes, to help support a brighter future for these individuals as opposed to dependency on these programs.”

The LePage administration’s plan includes a litany of cuts to anti-poverty programs, such as tightening restrictions on assistance for low-income families, canceling health care coverage for 25,000 people, and eliminating funding for emergency food and housing for destitute Mainers. The cuts come in the wake of a number of previous initiatives that resulted in 40,000 low-income Mainers losing health care, 16,000 children losing food and shelter assistance, and 40,000 Mainers losing food assistance, according to the low-income advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Approximately one in four children now suffer from hunger, according to the national organization Feeding America. A recent report by the Preble Street Hunger Initiative and the Good Shepherd Food Bank found that the rate of hunger in Maine has remained at 15.8 percent as the rate in the rest of the country has dropped to 13 percent since the Great Recession. In 2016, Maine experienced a 5-percent increase in the number of people who were homeless, according to the Maine Housing Authority. 

Speaking against the elimination of General Assistance, which funds homeless shelters and housing vouchers for homeless people, former U.S. Navy veteran William Higgins Jr. of the group Homeless Voices for Justice said the program allowed him to stay in his home. 

“Later, when my depression became worse, I lost the room I was staying in during February 2006. I lost all my possessions and I walked into Oxford Street Shelter with just the clothes on my back,” Higgins told the Appropriations Committee last week. “I became severely depressed, spent over a year at the shelter, before going to Salvation Army for an additional 9 months. At that point I applied for a VA Service Connected Disability. As I waited for my VA disability determination, I was able to stay at the YMCA. General Assistance paid for my room rent, some food assistance, and some non-food assistance each week. That assistance was essential for my life while I waited the five months for the disability approval.”

“Our Hearts Were Broken”

But the main target of the cuts are legal non-citizens who are mostly refugees seeking asylum from violence, rape and political and religious persecution. For several years, the governor has attempted to eliminate temporary assistance to asylum seekers, which they use to survive on for at least six months until the federal government grants them authorization to work. In making his case, the governor has often characterized immigrants as criminals and disease carriers. In 2015, the governor and House Republicans nearly eliminated temporary assistance for non-citizens, but failed after the governor forgot to veto a bill restoring eligibility for non-citizens. About 3,000 New Mainers would be impacted by the cuts, according to DHHS.

 


In emotional testimonies before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, refugees from Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo pleaded with lawmakers to prevent the cuts from going through. Nineteen-year-old Bright Lukusa Musuamba came to testify on the measure with her mother and brother. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Musuamba said she grew up in South Africa and Nigeria, but had to leave due to “horrible events” including police attacks, threats and xenophobia.

“Being from Africa, I would never have imagined that any state in the U.S. could offer so much assistance to immigrants or asylum seekers like me,” said Musuamba, who arrived in the United States last November. “From what I am used to, foreigners are looked down upon and barely considered. Imagine my surprise and joy when we arrived in Maine and were told that we could be accepted and assisted. Currently, General Assistance pays for my family’s housing and is used to give us food vouchers before we got our Food Supplement cards. The proposed budget cuts would leave us and many other families or individuals homeless and without food. This will be very detrimental to our immigrant community.”

Musuamba said she is currently a student at the local adult education center and a volunteer at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine while she waits for her authorization from the federal government to work. 

Others testified against the elimination of a state program that provides assistance to a small number of elderly and disabled non-citizens. In written testimony, Sebastian Bukuru, a Burundian refugee from Westbrook, said he and his wife Penine had to flee their native country after receiving threats for their work in human rights, conflict resolution and assisting people dealing with trauma. However, after they arrived in the U.S. his wife was left severely disabled as a result of a car accident shortly before the date of the couple’s asylum hearing. He said that as a result of Penine’s condition, the couple has been waiting seven years for another asylum hearing.

“Every day I am my wife’s full-time home care provider,” wrote Bukuru. “I carry my wife around, help her wake up and get up. She has both short-term and long-term memory loss. Luckily she has regained her ability to speak. We are thankful that she has been able to receive SSI and food supplement benefits. This has been really helping us. It’s the money we use to pay for rent, electricity and food. Without that we would be on the streets. The good news is that every day Penine is showing signs of recovery. But without this support, we would be homeless, and her recovery would be severely compromised. When we heard about this budget proposal, our hearts were broken. All of these things are upon me. Somehow I have hope that goodhearted people like you will see that with support, we can be full members of our community.”

Testifying against the budget proposals, Westbrook resident Leopold Ndayisabye said he fled from his home in Rwanda in 2011 to avoid being murdered for his human rights activities. Prior to arriving in Maine, Ndayisabye said he worked as a community development consultant for Norway, Belgium, the American Red Cross, Switzerland, and the Netherlands in various Central African countries. After initially receiving General Assistance, Ndayisabye was able to secure his work authorization and now works as a caseworker at the Preble Street Homeless Shelter in Portland.

“I think about a single mother I know with four children, another family with children I know, and the many other New Mainers and Old Mainers who might be thrown on the street the day after the General Assistance program ended,” said Ndayisabye. “It would be nothing short of a statewide emergency. Rates of homelessness would skyrocket. I think about all those kids who will be one more time traumatized, perhaps not able to go to school because of their parents’ housing [being in] jeopardy, without access to food or shelter, all because of a political choice. Maine has a budget surplus. There is no budgetary rationale to make such a drastic cut to services.”