Orange County has agreed to stop making it so hard for homeless and mentally ill adults to get a basic monthly financial aid benefit.

As part of a tentative legal settlement that increases to $317 monthly the amount that the county pays poor adults on general relief, officials also have agreed to remove about two dozen administrative roadblocks for those seeking basic aid.

General relief is a county-financed, state-required program that in Orange County serves a monthly average of 973 indigent adults who are not supporting children.

The new payment levels, which went into effect July 1, raise the county’s maximum monthly payment by $38 a month. The payments must eventually be paid back by recipients.

“We give credit to the county for coming to the table to work out effective solutions and fair solutions,” said Stephanie Haffner of the Western Center on Law & Poverty and one of the lead attorneys in the case. “We hope the settlement is a significant step in the right direction.”

Wendy Aquin, division director for adult services and assistance programs in the county’s Social Services Agency, said that when the increased payments are factored in, Orange County will spend an estimated $300,000 a month this fiscal year on general relief.

Under the pending settlement the county will also pay a total of $450,000 in legal fees to the three law firms that brought the case.

The settlement was reached July 25. Superior Court Judge Nancy Wieben Stock is scheduled to announce Oct. 10 whether she will give it final approval. If she makes the settlement permanent, she will supervise the county for three years to ensure it follows the agreement.

Changes the county must make include:

  • Allowing applicants with no permanent address to use a post office box.
  • Simplify paperwork and make it compatible with companion programs, like the CalFresh food stamps program.
  • Increase the maximum value of the car or truck a recipient can own from the current $1,500 to $4,650.
  • Allow those with disabilities to work through a branch office other than the main Santa Ana site.
  • Provide bus passes for those who are required to go to the Santa Ana office but don’t have transportation.

In fiscal 2011-2012, an average of 973 adults a month received general relief aid in Orange County, up dramatically from the 249 monthly average five years earlier, according to Social Services Agency statistics.

The leap came as unemployment soared during the Great Recession and work opportunities remained weak.

Even so, with a population of about 3 million, it wasn’t immediately clear whether Orange County’s general relief rates were in line with other counties of similar size.

The newspaper U-T San Diego reported in 2009 that San Diego County, about the same size as Orange County, had “an all-time high” 964 general relief recipients in June.

That same fiscal year, Orange County reported a monthly average of 391 general relief recipients.

The Public Interest Law Project and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund joined the Western Center to file the class action lawsuit in August 2010.

In their suit, they cited state law that requires counties to: “Relieve and support all incompetent, poor, indigent persons, and those incapacitated by age, disease, or accident, lawfully resident therein, when such persons are not supported and relieved by their relatives or friends, by their own means, or by state hospitals or other state or private institutions.”

Children, families, seniors and individuals with disabilities are aided by other programs financed by the state and federal government.

Adults who received general relief are supposed to repay the county when able. While the county is repaid about $500,000 a year from adults who ultimately find work, the loan repayments go into effect only after “basic needs,” such as food, are met, said those involved with the program.

However, Haffner noted, in the case of some adults who have permanent disabilities or mental illness, the general relief payments can make their lives stable enough to receive treatment or qualify for federal disability benefits and stop relying on general relief.

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