Santa Clara County To Rescind Harsh General Assistance Cut

Two Santa Clara General Assistance (“GA”) recipients, the Petitioners in Jacques v. County of Santa Clara, et al., have succeeded in eliminating an illegal aid reduction, improving the lives of hundreds of past, present and future recipients. Petitioners were represented by the Public Interest Law Project (PILP), Asian Law Alliance (ALA), Bay Area Legal Aid (Bay Legal), and Paul Hastings LLP.

The County agreed to stop reducing GA recipients’ already very small grant by more than half, to only $147 per month, if they cannot get signed statements from their landlords verifying their rent. Instead, as with other application requirements, recipients can provide their own written statements verifying their rental amounts and other housing details. The settlement was entered as a judgment on March 29, 2013.

GA is a cash aid program of last resort, for severely indigent lawful county residents with nowhere else to turn. Most recipients are single men, past middle age, without any significant assets or income, who are ineligible for other benefits.  Many have disabilities, some as a result of their service to our country, but must wait – sometimes for years – for their applications for Veterans’ or other disability-based benefits to be decided.

The County’s policy forced many recipients into homelessness. Given their very low incomes, many GA recipients sublet shared rooms, toolsheds, the use of a couch, etc., from other very poor people.  These “landlords” may have disabilities, limited English, or other reasons why they cannot provide verification forms to the County. Even asking a landlord for the required forms might put a GA recipient at risk of being evicted. Many recipients’ aid was slashed to only $147 per month, through no fault of their own. As ALA staff attorney Jackie Maruhashi said, “The Jacques judgment will make a real difference for my clients and other GA recipients, now and into the future.”

In June, 2011, the Court of Appeal invalidated a different county’s policy of reducing GA if a recipient’s landlord refused to provide a Social Security Number.  The court ruled it was unlawful to reduce last resort aid based on the actions or inactions of a third party, such as a landlord. Cleary v. County of Alameda, 196 Cal. App. 4th 826 (2011).

All counties did not immediately comply with Cleary. “Unlike with other benefits like CalWORKs or CalFresh, there’s no state or federal oversight of county GA programs,” said PILP staff attorney Judith Gold.  “But when we join forces with strong legal services organizations, like Asian Law Alliance and Bay Area Legal Aid, and  have the generous assistance of powerhouse lawyers like Jeff Michalowski, Jamie Williams and Elizabeth Dorsi of Paul Hastings, we can bring all 58 counties into compliance with the GA laws.”

Petitioners’ counsel attempted to resolve this problem with the county, but when discussions failed, affected clients of ALA and Bay Legal filed suit, asking not just for their own back benefits, but for the program-wide reform that is now accomplished by the settlement. Current recipients are no longer having their GA reduced because their landlord won’t verify the rent. Previously affected recipients can also obtain lump sum payments of withheld aid going as far back as March, 2011. The claim form must be submitted by August 26, 2013.

Jeff Michalowski of Paul Hastings LLP said, “The County is now doing the prudent as well as the humane thing. By preventing many people from becoming homeless, the reformed policy will save much more, in public health costs alone, than the grant cut might have ‘saved’ in the short term.”

Lisa Newstrom, Managing Attorney for Bay Legal’s Santa Clara Region, said “We wish litigation hadn’t been necessary, but we want to recognize the County’s willingness to reconsider its position.  Its new rule benefits the entire community.”

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