SAN RAFAEL, CA – In California’s wealthiest county live up to 6,000 desperately poor residents, most of them neglected by the County’s government. In a lawsuit filed on January 31 in Marin County Superior Court, three destitute Marin residents charge that the County uses illegal and unfair methods to refuse subsistence aid to its most destitute population.
The suit, filed by Greg Versis, Alfredo Garcia and Lee A. Lee and backed by two major public interest law firms, asks the court to lend order, consistency and openness to the County’s methods for dispensing General Assistance (GA) funds. GA is a county program which provides a small monthly stipend (about $387 a month) to indigent adults.
While California law requires counties to distribute GA funds fairly, the lawsuit charges that Marin County shirks this duty by running its GA program “according to ad hoc, unpublished, ever-changing, and often unwritten rules that result in the inhumane termination of last resort aid.” Moreover, plaintiffs allege that the County is breaking state law by cutting people out of GA assistance without first making the required findings of good cause.
The result: Just 450 of the county’s indigents, many of whom are disabled, are given the few dollars they need to survive, and even those people face arbitrary cut-offs. The rest have fallen through the safety net. In the past 11 years, the complaint alleges, about 139 homeless people have died on the streets of Marin County and many more have been left hungry, ill, and unable to pay for shelter.
Kristen Washburn, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, one of the organizations representing the plaintiffs, saw her client lose his GA benefits and then his housing. “He couldn’t pay his rent and was evicted. He was living in a tent during the coldest and wettest time of the year,” she said. “Then there was a cold snap and a lot of rain, and he told me his tent was leaking. I wondered how he was going to survive.”
The suit alleges that Marin has shunned its indigent population for decades. “The Board of Supervisors has ignored this critical, last-resort benefit, and the very poorest members of this affluent county for more than 30 years,” said Bob Capistrano, another lawyer with Bay Area Legal Aid. “Welfare workers are cutting people out of GA based upon nonsensical, unfair, and illegal rules they seem to be making up as they go along.”
Plaintiff Alfredo Garcia, 49, a former construction worker who was sidelined by work injuries, was able to receive GA but he fears losing this lifeline because it is nearly impossible to understand and follow the County’s many arbitrary requirements. For example, he and other recipients have to file monthly status reports and are threatened with possible termination even if they file the reports one day early. ”I really worry about all of the other people who rely on GA and the many folks who lose it every month.” Garcia said. “It isn’t much money, but it is all we have to survive.”
“We are asking the court to order Marin County to follow the law,” said Judith Gold of the Public Interest Law Project, which is also representing the plaintiffs. “That means it can’t cut people off from this critically needed aid for violating program rules unless the violations are truly their fault. It also cannot keep running this program under unwritten standards that the Board of Supervisors has not reviewed or approved. While we recognize that counties are under pressure to save money, this will save money in the long run by allowing more people to get out of costly shelter beds and into stable housing.”
The Public Interest Law Project provides crucial litigation and advocacy support to local legal services and public interest law programs throughout California. (http://www.pilpca.org). Bay Area Legal Aid is the largest provider of free civil legal services in the Bay Area. Bay Legal and PILP have frequently worked together to ensure access to the GA safety net. They have successfully pursued a number of General Assistance cases against other counties, including Contra Costa and Alameda.