Counties in California cannot deny general relief payments to the homeless simply because they lack a permanent address, a state appellate court ruled Tuesday.
The decision in a case challenging San Diego County's residency requirements for receiving basic welfare assistance could affect a dozen other counties with similar rules, according to legal advocates for the homeless.
"This is not going to be the panacea for the homeless, but I think it's a major victory," said Richard Rothschild, a lawyer in Los Angeles for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which filed the suit in tandem with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.
Attorneys said a substantial number of the estimated 6,000 homeless in San Diego County could benefit from the ruling, but county officials had no estimate of the cost of compliance with the decision. Rothschild said the ruling could affect Santa Barbara, Monterey and other counties with similar residency requirements.
In ruling that withholding assistance from the homeless flouted the very intent of the laws establishing county general relief programs, the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected the reasoning of a 16-year-old case upholding an address requirement.
"The county's regulations appear to be inconsistent with and in open conflict with (the law's) mandate to relieve and support lawfully resident indigent persons," Presiding Justice Daniel J. Kremer said in writing for the court's unanimous three-judge panel.
The decision reinstates the Legal Aid Society lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court and establishes the law to be followed by the trial court in hearing the case. County lawyers will study the decision to determine whether to appeal, Deputy County Counsel Leonard Pollard II said.
The county contends that requiring applicants for relief to provide an address is necessary to protect the county from fraud and from having to assume financial responsibility for large numbers of transients.
"Our problem is to specifically identify and aid only those who are our residents," Pollard said.
But the court ruled that the county rules went too far. "Preventing fraud is a legitimate county interest," Kremer wrote. "However, regulations may be invalid if they are more restrictive than necessary and extend not only to claimants suspected of fraud but also to nonsuspect claimants."
Under the rules rejected by the appellate court, San Diego County has cut off aid to general relief recipients if they could not provide a permanent address 60 days after they began receiving assistance.
"What they've been saying is that no matter how long you've been here, no matter what your intent is, as long as you don't have an address and four walls, we're going to say you're not entitled to general relief," said Colleen Fahey Fearn, a Legal Aid Society lawyer.
The relief program--considered the final safety net for those who do not qualify for aid from other programs--pays $225 per month. Recipients must look for work and repay the assistance with public service employment.