Taking a new and controversial swipe at welfare fraud, Los Angeles County welfare officials are proposing that all general relief applicants who lack acceptable identification be fingerprinted and photographed before they are given emergency shelter vouchers.
Welfare officials said that the ID system, scheduled for consideration today by the county Board of Supervisors, would eventually be computerized. Welfare workers could then instantly determine through fingerprint comparisons whether a person standing before them was trying to collect more than one voucher under different identities.
Advocates for the homeless expressed concern that fingerprinting of the homeless mentally ill in particular would frighten recipients away and deny them the shelter they need.
Carol Matsui, spokeswoman for the county welfare department, said the new system could be implemented by mid-April and ultimately involve the fingerprinting and photographing of about an eighth of the more than 8,000 poor people who apply monthly for emergency housing vouchers. The latest available figures show that in December, 1985, 8,246 people applied for general relief, 1,057 of whom were unable to show identification, Matsui said.
Bid to Cut Costs
The fingerprinting proposal, which Matsui said has not been tried elsewhere, is aimed at reducing the cost of helping the homeless. The county paid out more than $100 million last year in general relief to poor people ineligible for other forms of welfare. This year the figure could climb to $120 million, officials say. General relief consists of $228 worth of food and lodging assistance per person per month.
Last year, following disclosures that emergency shelter vouchers were being peddled illegally on the streets to homeless people ignorant of the fact that they could get them free, the Board of Supervisors ordered welfare officials to study ways to stop the fraud. On Dec. 3, the board ordered the welfare department to recommend a fingerprinting and photographing system.
Welfare officials are not sure how much fraud exists within the general relief program, but have estimated that preventive measures could save as much as $3.5 million annually. The cost of operating the fingerprinting program is uncertain, officials said.
Homeless advocates say fingerprinting could have a chilling effect on emergency voucher applicants. The advocates are particularly concerned that the fingerprinting procedure would frighten away the homeless mentally ill. Emergency vouchers, ranging in value from $8 to $16 a day, are provided for a maximum of 14 days until recipients can secure proper identification.
"There are people who have a little touch of paranoia or who are shell-shocked from being on the streets for awhile," said attorney Gary Blasi of the Legal Aid Society, "If people are confronted with a police-style booking to get emergency shelter for one night at a crummy Skid Row hotel . . . I think many of them won't do it."
Blasi added, however, that such a system is preferable to the former practice--temporarily halted by court order--that barred general relief payments until applicants secured identification.
Matt Lyons, a spokesman for the Homeless Organizing Team that has been pushing for increased welfare funding, also expressed concerns about the fingerprinting program's potential impact on the homeless mentally ill.
"You're not going to get a paranoid schizophrenic to go into a welfare office and be fingerprinted and photographed," Lyons said. He said easier, less expensive ways to solve the fraud problem exist, such as including a detailed physical description on the housing vouchers.
Richard Van Horn, executive director of the Mental Health Assn. in Los Angeles County, said the proposed system could work if applicants are convinced they will be fingerprinted as a "safeguard."
County Supervisor Ed Edelman, the board's most outspoken advocate for the homeless, said he voted in December to devise the fingerprinting system, but now has reservations about its impact on the welfare fraud problem.
Edelman, Blasi and Lyons said that besides being peddled in the streets, many vouchers are being illegally purchased by hotel owners at reduced prices and then redeemed at full value.