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County's sanction rates are questioned


For years, workers and advocates at some area homeless shelters have said that the county has been too harsh with its sanctions, stripping housing, utility, and emergency food benefits from public-assistance recipients.

The county can sanction recipients for any number of reasons. Sometimes it's because they don't meet work requirements or because they fail drug tests. But in making their point, advocates have had to rely largely on anecdotal evidence. They've relayed stories of people losing benefits because they messed up some paperwork or missed a bus and didn't make it to an appointment.

But a recent report from Nazareth College sociology professor Harry Murray put some numbers to the issue. He used publicly available data from the state to calculate and compare sanction rates for Monroe, Erie, and Onondaga counties, as well as for New York City. The counties and New York City serve as social services districts.

Murray's report says that between 2005 and 2017, Monroe County went from being tied for the lowest sanction rate to having the highest rate in the state. Murray's report also points out that Monroe County has consistently denied 70 percent to 80 percent of completed public assistance applications, a number higher than any of the other districts he looked at.

"I think it shows that Monroe County has been much more punitive than the other three major urban counties," Murray said during an interview last week.

James Murphy, a Catholic Worker at St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, which runs a shelter during Rochester's colder months, says the findings "went beyond our worst fears.

Sanctions can put people at risk of eviction and homeless, since they strip away housing assistance, Murphy and Murray say. The punitive loss of benefits can also make it hard for people who are already homeless to find a bed in a homeless shelter, since some of the facilities rely on county reimbursement for each person they house.

House of Mercy and St. Joe's House of Hospitality end up taking in many of the people with sanctions, since neither shelter relies on or accepts government funding. Open Door Mission also ends up taking in quite a few people who are sanctioned.

"We're really penalizing people who need help the most," Murphy says.

County officials, however, believe the report is not accurate. They've discussed it with representatives from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which sets regulations on the acceptance and denial of applications for public benefits, as well as for sanctions. The agency representatives said they have no concerns about the way Monroe County has implemented those regulations and they assured officials that "Monroe County is not an outlier compared to its peers," says county spokesperson Jesse Sleezer.

The agency representatives also told county officials that some of the information may be taken out of context, Sleezer said. But he wouldn't identify specific examples.

"The conversation also included some speculation that, to the extent that Monroe County's numbers may be different than some other counties, it could be possible that the county is simply following the state regulations as prescribed," Sleezer says.

Murray says he stands by his work and points out that he used publicly available data from Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to calculate the rates. The sanction data is the most complex, since he analyzed three different categories across a span of more than a decade.

For each jurisdiction, he calculated the rate for all sanctions. In 2017, Monroe County had a monthly average 25,077 public assistance recipients and 4.94 percent of them had received some sort of sanction, according to the report. By comparison, Erie County had a sanction rate of 2.36 percent, Onondaga County had a 3.49 percent rate, and New York City had a 1.59 percent rate.

Monroe County's rate increased overall since 2005, while the rates decreased in the other three jurisdictions, the report says.

Murray also calculated rates of "durational employment sanctions" and "durational drug and alcohol violations." In those two categories, public assistance recipients have their benefits suspended for a set period of time, typically between one and six months.

Monroe County's 2017 durational drug and alcohol sanction rate, and the number of people under sanction on an average monthly basis, was higher than in the other two counties and New York City, says the report.

The case was similar with the durational employment sanctions, though the New York City numbers are less reliable. A 2015 law changed how the city can handle those sanctions, which drastically reduced the numbers. Murray and Murphy would like to see the law expanded statewide; Assembly bill A3611 would do that, Murphy says.

Murray's report doesn't make any concrete assertions as to why Monroe County's rates are high, but it does call for "a serious study of the actual implementation of sanction policy in Monroe County compared to the other counties."

Murray and his report say county policies and practices are likely responsible for the rates to some degree. It could be using durational sanctions when the other counties and New York City use non-durational sanctions, meaning people's benefits resume once they rectify a violation. In other words, if someone misses or fails a drug test, the benefits would resume once they take or pass the drug test, not after a set time period.

Monroe County and state officials should also evaluate whether county practices are contributing to homelessness, Murray says.

As St. Joe's opened its shelter for the winter last year, workers immediately faced a demand for beds that exceeded the place's permitted capacity. Workers found that during those initial weeks, about one-third of the people seeking shelter were under durational drug and alcohol sanctions, Murphy says.

The shelter opens for the year in October, and workers are expecting overflow demand again, Murphy says. He believes that county public assistance sanctions will be a factor.

"People don't get the help they need," Murphy says.