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Welfare Recipients Look Elsewhere Since State Aid Cut Off

October 6, 1991

LANSING, Mich. (AP) _ A few blocks from the Capitol, where Michigan’s main welfare program was eradicated, counselor Shirley Johns offers startling advice to those without food or shelter: ″I tell them to commit a simple larceny.

″Especially if they’re sick I tell them to do that. I explain to them it’s a roof over their head, it’s free food, free medical treatment for their pneumonia. When they get out of jail, they look healthy, they put on some weight, they look clean, well-groomed.″

Johns, director of the Community Service and Referral Center, said her advice isn’t new. But the urgency is increasing with the cutoff last week of state welfare for 81,000 people who aren’t disabled and don’t have children.

The benefits averaged $145 monthly and cost the state $246 million in last year’s $7 billion budget.

Republican Gov. John Engler argued that tough budget cuts were necessary in tough financial times. Able-bodied poor people, he said, will find jobs or move in with relatives as they seek schooling or job training.

Michigan’s unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in September, up from 9.1 percent in August.

As the cuts took effect Oct. 1, many landlords wasted no time in sending eviction notices to tenants who relied on General Assistance.

Community groups like Johns’ are telling the poor not to budge.

″We’re telling them not to move out until the sheriff comes to their door,″ Johns said. ″And if a landlord changes the locks and cuts off their utilities, they can sue the landlord. The plan is to tie the court system up.″

Her hope is that winter will have come and gone by the time the cases are resolved and her clients put out on the street.

A coalition called Michigan Up and Out of Poverty Now is gearing up for a class-action lawsuit to stop the budget, a public education campaign about the cuts, intense lobbying of lawmakers and fund raising to finance the efforts.

″We need to rally the most powerful effort you’ve ever seen in this country,″ said the Rev. Obie Matthews of Christ Cornerstone Baptist Church in Detroit.

Mark Hollenbeck was relying on $105 every two weeks since Jan. 22 while he searched for a job. Having emerged clean from a drug-rehabilitation program, he needed a temporary shoulder to lean on.

″It’s like a steppingstone, just like how babies learn how to crawl, and start hanging on to stuff and learning how to walk,″ he said.

The cuts also reduced supplemental security income for 120,000 elderly and disabled people, and eliminated optional Medicaid services such as vision, dental and physical therapy.

Lew Burrows, a social worker at the Heartside Clinic in Grand Rapids, said he’s encouraging some clients with ″more severe medical problems than previously thought″ to apply for federal and state disability.

″There’s so much more that’s negative, at least that part is positive,″ he said.

Housing is another story.

Melvin Tate and his wife, Amy, have been staying at the Homeless Union in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, one of the city’s most beleaguered neighborhoods, since they were cut off from assistance.

″There’s people standing outside of this building waiting to get in,″ Tate said. ″There are 40 men in one little room. There are two restrooms and no shower - you have to line up to wash up in two face bowls.

″Tension is building up in the place we’re staying at. There’s so much tension we can’t even really sleep at night.″

Tate wants to get a high school equivalency diploma, and has been applying for jobs at fast-food restaurants.

″They’re running out of applications,″ he said. ″When I wake up every day I pray to God I find some work. ...″

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