Rising cost of getting by: Welfare offices across the state seeing increase in people seeking help

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Todd Marsh, president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association and Rochester’s Welfare Director says welfare offices across the state are seeing an increase in people seeking help. File Photo

MANCHESTER, NH – When the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) ended last May, the number of people who showed up at the City Welfare Department seeking help in paying their rent more than tripled, climbing from an average of 70 a month in May 2022, to 222 in May 2023.

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Charleen Michaud, city welfare director, said this past July, 189 people sought assistance, more than double the 85 in July 2022.  The numbers of people seeking help have yet to return to pre-COVID days.

When it comes to funding, city welfare can’t come close to the federal government which distributed more than $75 million in rental and utilities assistance to city residents under ERAP during the COVID epidemic.  Michaud said the city’s costs during COVID actually went down because people seeking help at the welfare office were referred to ERAP. 

ERAP stopped processing applications in October 2022 and ended in May 2023, so this past year the city’s general assistance costs, which for years was budgeted at $344,550 for general assistance, increased by about $33,000.  

Todd Marsh, president of the New Hampshire Welfare Administrators Association, said welfare offices across the state are seeing an increase in people seeking help.   He said it is not just because ERAP ended, but because people can’t afford the unprecedented hikes in rents.

As an example, he said a man in his 70s came into the welfare office in Rochester, where Marsh is the director, to seek help in paying his rent.  He had retired but had a part-time job.  He had to stop working for medical reasons and, at the same time he did, his landlord raised his rent by $600 a month.  His total income isn’t enough to pay the higher rent on his apartment where he had lived for years. 

“Here’s someone who is in our office for the first time and he’s never applied for subsidized housing,” Marsh said. “No matter how NH Yankee frugal he is he can’t pay his rent so we are working with him.  That is what we are seeing more. It used to be rare to see senior citizens but we are seeing it more because they have nowhere to turn.  We have to be mindful of the bigger picture. How and what we do or don’t do will affect their well-being.  Practicing situational flexibility beyond the budget numbers can be cost-effective. That’s the benefit of local welfare.”

ERAP, Michaud said, was unprecedented and “very easy for people to qualify.  Even if people had enough money to pay the rent, ERAP paid the rent anyway.”

People collected the funds for three to 18 months. 

Marsh said he was grateful for the program because it helped so many New Hampshire citizens stay in their homes.  He concedes, however, that there were some unintended consequences. 

Marsh said it is true that some people received ERAP when they had the means to pay the rent.  One woman, who was able to just barely pay her bills, also qualified for ERAP. But when it ended, she was in the welfare office seeking help with the rent.  Marsh said he asked if she had saved anything and she said no.  She hung her head and said she never in her life knew how to save money.

“I did send out communications to local welfare offices about being flexible,” he said.  “Are we going to be rigid and focus on what she should have saved? We have to get past that moment and help them with budgeting.  We call it a reset.”  

Unintended consequences of ERAP 

During the time of ERAP, some people paid down debt to get out of a financial hole, Michaud said.  Others spent the money on other things. 

“It’s one thing if they went out and bought a big-screen TV.  That’s a one-time purchase,” she said.  “What we’ve seen is a lot of people bought cars that they were not going to have any ability to afford.”

Michaud said they’ve seen people with monthly car payments of $600 to $900. “They essentially took what was rent money and applied it to a car payment,” she said.  

Charleen Michaud

City welfare, she said, is not going to pay a portion of their rent in order for them to pay for a car they can’t afford.

“They need to do everything they can to fix that situation,” she said.

What is happening, she said, is not that people don’t have the ability to pay their basic needs but “they adjusted their lifestyle (after receiving ERAP) and now they’re not transitioning back to their income.  They’re coming to us and wanting us to pay their basic needs while they pay their non-basic needs.  And we do not pay debt.”

She said while people complain about the process of obtaining help and what welfare requires of applicants, the requirements have remained the same for 20 years.  They are stringent.  

“It’s a really hard criteria to meet,” Michaud said.  “It’s the absolute basics.”

Under state law, “Whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has residence there.”

Michaud said what the city helps with are the “the most basic human needs.”  Those, she said, are “a roof over your head, food for the belly,” medication, heat, lights, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items, diapers and gas for a vehicle (when it is used for medical and work purposes only.)

The list of items that are not basic needs include:  Credit card payments, rent-to-own items, phones, cable/satellite TV, internet service, repayment of personal loans, payment of traffic citations, bail, court fines and court-ordered restitution. Car insurance also is not considered a basic need.

Depending on an individual’s situation and where they work, it could be determined that a car is not a necessity, particularly in Manchester where there is public transportation.  

The city’s Welfare Department is housed at the Carol Rines Center on Elm Street. Photo/Carol Robidoux

When someone seeks help at city welfare, there is a long list of information they need to provide: Proof of income, pay stubs, EBT card, completed landlord packet, eviction papers, lease/rental agreement, printouts of bank statements.  People are required to keep track of all their money and provide receipts for all expenditures.

Michaud said receipts are necessary because people sometimes have the money to cover their basic needs but are spending hundreds of dollars eating out, or on a $ 7-a-day habit for a signature cup of joe at the local coffee shop, which adds up to about $200 a month.  

People don’t always tell the truth, either, she said.  Caseworkers have been told by clients that they lost the receipts; they lost their money; they were robbed; they had to pay $500 to replace a flat tire but don’t have the receipt; they gave their kids some money and now they don’t have that $700 they were told to pay on the rent.

“Should we pay the additional $700 when the person has the $700 in his pocket?” she said.      

She said another major problem is “financial illiteracy.”  She said the older generation was paid with a paper check that had to be deposited at a bank.  The checking account came with a register to keep track of what was spent.  

“More and more we’ve become a society that doesn’t have a real concept of money or tracks their money like a generation ago,” she said.  “They don’t have accounts at a brick-and-mortar building.  They only have plastic and they swipe a card and swipe a card so at the end of the month don’t have the money to cover the rent.”

When someone goes to welfare saying they are going to be evicted within days if they don’t come up with the rent, Michaud said they will issue one-time emergency help.  However, she said the client has to meet welfare halfway.

The pressing issue, she explained, is maintaining the roof over your head and, because of that, every penny the person has needs to be paid to the landlord.  If a car payment is upcoming, she said the person is asked to put off payment or to contact the finance company and ask for a deferment.  She said banks allow for a deferment for financial hardship.  An eviction meets the criteria.

Part of what welfare does, Michaud said, is to coach people on how to prioritize money appropriately. A case worker, she said, will help a client in meeting their own needs.  It could be the person is unemployed and is in need of finding a job.  Or, if they qualify, they may be required to apply for food stamps or fuel assistance. Everything is geared to improving their situation, Michaud said.

When she was a case worker years ago, she said she had one client who went on a vacation of a lifetime—an island vacation at a pricy resort—who then sought help because the electricity was turned off.  The client made more money than Michaud and had a $10,000 commission check coming in within a week.  Welfare paid $200 to have the power turned back on.

It was a case of someone spending everything they had coming in and then some.

‘Since ERAP, we’re seeing a lot more of that,” Michaud said. “We’re seeing people who have these expectations ‘ERAP’s over, what’s the next program that’s going to help pay my rent.’   There is no program right now.  There’s never been a program like ERAP before and I think there never will be a program like ERAP again.”

She said she is proud of her office and staff who also deal with a lot of people who have mental health issues and substance abuse issues.

“Frankly, some of the time they don’t want to show us their receipts or can’t show us their receipts because they’re spending money on drugs,” she said.

They also are seeing people with gambling addictions – from online gambling. 

“The online gambling is so easy it’s just on your phone,” she said.   “You don’t have to go to a casino. Recently, we saw someone who’s spending money on online dating.  Again, the Manchester taxpayer shouldn’t have to pay your rent because you’re gambling or on a dating site.”

Michaud said she is proud of what her office is doing and of her staff who sometimes are subjected to abuse.

“When people are in crisis and not necessarily making good rational decisions they tend to lash out,” she said.  “Workers here are very often on the receiving end of that.  It’s a tough job.”

But, she said, city welfare is “helping a lot of people stay in housing.”  

In 2023, she said they assisted 332 households covering 274 children.  Of the 332 households, 244 were housed, 88 unhoused; 185 were assisted with rent to prevent being evicted; 23 were assisted with utilities;

City welfare, Michaud said, also pays Families in Transition $83,000 a year to reserve four out of the 11 rooms at the family shelter for their exclusive use.  She said Manchester is the only community in the state with that arrangement.

“It ultimately saves Manchester taxpayers money,” she said. “That’s a wonderful partnership.”  Clients, while staying there, also receive caseworker services. In 2023, 34 families used that facility, she said.

For FY 2023, the city also paid for 36 households in hotels.  In all, the city paid $387,332 in general assistance, overspending its $344,550 budget.  Michaud said she did not have to ask for additional funding because she transferred money from the wages line item.

She said in those cases where someone is denied assistance or disagrees with a decision, people have the right to request a fair hearing.  An attorney, who volunteers his time, will review the case.  In 2023, only seven people asked for a fair hearing.  Four of them decided to withdraw their appeal while the other three cases were all upheld.

Are you at risk of losing your home? HomeHelpNH provides resources for renters and homeowners who are at risk of losing their home. Visit HomeHelpNH.org or call 2-1-1, a free service offered by Granite United Way.

About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.