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L.T. v. New Jersey Department of Human Services

Decided: December 15, 1993.

L.T., PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT. L.W., PETITIONER-APPELLANT, V. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT. L.M., PETITIONER-APPELLANT, V. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT. J.W., PETITIONER-APPELLANT, V. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT. M.M., PETITIONER-APPELLANT, V. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DIVISION OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 264 N.J. Super. 334 (1993).

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, J.

O'hern

[134 NJ Page 306] This appeal concerns the rights of persons facing eviction and homelessness to receive extensions of temporary rental assistance (TRA) under the State's General Public Assistance Law, N.J.S.A. 44:8-107 to -157 (GA Law). "The [GA] [L]aw exists 'to the end that * * * person[s] may not suffer unnecessarily, from cold, hunger, sickness or be deprived of shelter * * *.'" Pascucci v. Vagott, 71 N.J. 40, 48, 362 A.2d 566 (1976) (quoting N.J.S.A. 44:8-122). TRA provides a twelve-month rent supplement to eligible GA recipients to prevent homelessness. The case arises from respondent's refusal to continue TRA, in essence, forcing the eviction and consequent homelessness of these claimants. The

question in this appeal, most broadly stated, is whether the Legislature intends that administration of the GA Law, by setting a twelve-month expiration period for TRA, should result in the homelessness of the very persons whom the law is intended to shelter. We think not. We therefore direct that the agency continue TRA for individuals facing homelessness to the extent of available appropriations, unless it identifies another governmental agency or program that will provide shelter for such persons.

I

A.

For purposes of this appeal, we generally accept the procedural history and statement of facts as set forth in the briefs of the Department of Human Services (DHS). We add something of the circumstances that brought each of these five persons to the verge of homelessness. For the most part, they were working men who were experiencing difficult times. The status of many other GA recipients is often misperceived by the public:

[S]tereotypes of GA recipients are ill-founded and incorrect. Those who stereotype recipients as generally men in their 20's and 30's who have trouble keeping a job ignore those individuals who are chronically unemployed or underemployed and those with chronic health problems who have barriers that prevent them from maintaining employment.

The [GA] population is very diverse. It ranges from the 18 year old high school drop out with virtually no work history who is unable to find a job in the current economy; to the 40 year old former factory worker who was laid off as a result of down sizing, has now exhausted his/her unemployment benefits and finds his/her 20 years of assembly line experience to be in little demand; to the 50 year old with a graduate degree who is unable to find work; to the 63 year old alcoholic who is too ill to work but not considered to be disabled by the Social Security Administration. For these people and thousands of others with somewhat different stories, the GA program represents their last hope, the final shred of the safety net.

[William Waldman, Commissioner of Department of Human Services, A Special Report to the Legislature on General Assistance 1, 7 (April 1993) (hereinafter Report to the Legislature).]

Petitioners, Larry Tillman, Lee Wilkins, Leonard McMahon, John White, and Martin Malcolm (fictitious names), all resided in

Paterson and received $140 each in monthly GA benefits from the Paterson Municipal Welfare Agency (MWA). At various times, the Paterson MWA granted each petitioner emergency assistance (EA) benefits in the form of TRA to prevent petitioners from becoming homeless. The MWA placed petitioners in the Paterson YMCA, which charged $352 in monthly rent. Petitioners paid $105 of the rent out of their $140 monthly GA benefits, and the MWA made up the difference of $247 through TRA grants. While receiving TRA, all five petitioners participated in the GA employment program, which required them to seek affordable housing, employment, disability benefits, and other assistance. Their efforts met with no success. After each petitioner had been receiving TRA for at least one year, the MWA sought to terminate each petitioner's TRA benefits solely on the basis that DHS regulations limit the duration of TRA to one year. N.J.A.C. 10:85-4.6(e)2iii(5).

Petitioner Larry Tillman is a fifty-seven-year-old man who suffers from numerous health problems including arthritis. The Paterson MWA placed him in the Paterson YMCA because he was homeless. Despite his age and medical difficulties, the MWA classified Mr. Tillman as "employable." As a result, Mr. Tillman received the lower of the two available "flat grants" and was required to participate in the GA employment program. During the time that he lived at the YMCA, Mr. Tillman actively sought affordable housing, disability benefits, and a Passaic County Housing Authority rental subsidy. The Paterson MWA did not assist Mr. Tillman in those endeavors in any significant way. Currently, Mr. Tillman is receiving federal supplemental security income (SSI), which provides him with enough money to pay for an apartment even though he is no longer receiving either GA or TRA.

Petitioner Lee Wilkins suffers from chronic asthma and bronchitis. However, as with Larry Tillman, the MWA classified Mr. Wilkins as "employable." During the course of this appeal, Mr. Wilkins applied for Social Security and federal disability benefits, as well as a federal subsidy that was apparently earmarked for

rooms at the Paterson YMCA. At the time of oral argument, Mr. Wilkins had been in a drug-rehabilitation center for almost two months. He had been evicted from the YMCA for non-payment of rent after termination of his TRA benefits.

Petitioner Leonard McMahon, a forty-seven-year-old man, worked in the construction industry for twenty-five years before being laid off when that work slowed down during the recession. Sometime after his unemployment benefits had expired, Mr. McMahon developed difficulties with his pancreas that required hospitalization. Following treatment for his medical problem, Mr. McMahon was discharged from the hospital with no money and nowhere to live. As a result, the MWA granted him GA and TRA, and he took up residence at the Paterson YMCA. Although Mr. McMahon continues to suffer from pancreas and liver problems, the MWA considers him "employable" and requires him to participate in the GA employment program. While receiving TRA, Mr. McMahon attempted unsuccessfully to obtain affordable housing and employment. During the pendency of this appeal, he applied for Social Security and federal disability benefits. At oral argument, counsel indicated that Mr. McMahon was giving his GA grant and his food stamps to friends in exchange for housing since the termination of his TRA benefits.

Petitioner John White was awarded GA when his unemployment benefits were terminated. He lived at a shelter for homeless people until the MWA granted him TRA and placed him at the YMCA. While receiving TRA, Mr. White actively sought affordable housing and employment in Bergen and Passaic Counties. Those efforts met with failure. Similarly, Martin Malcolm also sought, unsuccessfully, affordable housing and employment during the time he was receiving TRA.

Last month, we reviewed DHS's denial of an extension of TRA benefits to another client of the Paterson MWA. James Saltano (fictitious name) is a forty-eight-year-old single male. He has a sixth-grade education; he is mildly retarded; and his health precludes him from doing the manual labor he once performed.

DHS terminated Mr. Saltano's assistance because the regulation called for such termination. Mr. Saltano is probably homeless.

B.

The GA program is directly administered by municipal welfare departments (MWDs) in accordance with regulations and directives of the Division of Family Development (DFD) (formerly known as the Division of Economic Assistance), which is a part of DHS. Regulations of the Commissioner of Human Services governing the administration of GA are set forth at N.J.A.C. 10:85-1.1 to -12.2.

Those regulations incorporate an assortment of benefits and services to assist homeless persons. Those programs include EA, N.J.A.C. 10:85-4.6(a), and TRA, N.J.A.C. 10:85-4.6(e)2. (For convenience, we use the terminology of the DHS, which distinguishes between EA and TRA even though TRA is actually one form of EA, as indicated by the fact that the TRA provisions are found in the EA regulations.)

EA comprises the GA program's quick-response, short-term mechanism for the provision of shelter to those who have lost or are about to lose their housing due to some emergency or unavoidable mishap. EA commonly involves placement in motels. We reviewed that program in Williams v. Department of Human Services, 116 N.J. 102, 561 A.2d 244 (1989) (Williams I). At issue in that case was the validity of a regulation that terminated EA at five months. Recognizing that placement of homeless persons in motels was the most demeaning and least cost-effective method of dealing with problems of homelessness, we held that a five-month limit on such benefits was reasonable, provided that the agency established programs that would make it reasonably certain that homeless persons would find shelter elsewhere.

One of the additional programs designed to avert homelessness was the TRA program, N.J.A.C. 10:82-4.6(e)2. TRA constitutes a comprehensive, longer-term approach to the problem of homelessness. Under the TRA program, qualifying GA recipients may

receive rental subsidies of $200 per month or more for up to a year. Because TRA may be "tacked on" to a grant of EA, eligible persons can and, in many cases, do receive combinations of EA and TRA for continuous periods of seventeen months and longer. At the commencement of a TRA grant, DHS gives a recipient notice of the subsidy's duration and advises the recipient that he or she is expected during that period to eliminate his or her dependence on the subsidy. In the Commissioner's view, the regulations do not provide for extensions of TRA beyond twelve months; however, in a large number of cases since the formal institution of the TRA program DHS has granted individual discretionary extensions of TRA. DHS granted each petitioner in this case an extension, but ultimately DHS issued final decisions at different times declining to grant further extensions. Petitioners appealed to the Appellate Division. Determining that petitioners had exhausted their rights to TRA, that court affirmed the decisions of DHS. 264 N.J. Super. 334, 624 A.2d 990 (1993).

The Appellate Division disagreed with petitioners' contention that termination of their TRA benefits violated the GA Law as interpreted by this Court in Williams I, supra, 116 N.J. 102, 561 A.2d 244, reasoning that "the shelter scheme which appellants now attack was thoroughly explored and evaluated by the ALJ and the Commissioner and approved by the Supreme Court in Williams III [121 N.J. 667, 583 A.2d 351 (1990)]." 264 N.J. Super. at 338, 624 A.2d 990. The court rejected petitioners' contention that they have a right to shelter under article I, paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. Id. at 342, 624 A.2d 990. The court also rejected petitioners' claim that they were entitled to continue receiving TRA under DHS's own regulations, specifically N.J.A.C. 10:85-4.6(e)3, reasoning that that provision was textually confined to extensions of EA hotel/motel placements rather than TRA rent subsidies. Finally, the court held that DHS did not abuse its discretion in refusing further extensions of petitioners' TRA benefits. 264 N.J. Super. at 343, 624 A.2d 990.

We granted the petitions for certification, 134 N.J. 480, 634 A.2d 527 (1993).

II

A.

We need not now repeat in detail the observations that we made in Williams I, supra, 116 N.J. 102, 561 A.2d 244, concerning the express and implied legislative policies that underlie our GA program. GA is considered a residual or last-resort program under which aid is available to needy persons between eighteen and sixty-five years of age who have no minor children. Other needy persons in our society are eligible for what is called "categorical" welfare aid, such as Old Age Assistance, Aid to the Blind, Disability Assistance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or Aid to Families of the Working Poor. GA assists those people who are not eligible for such categorical aid. As of 1988, approximately 20,000 people received benefits through the GA program. Today, GA is extended to some 38,000 recipients.

In Williams I, supra, 116 N.J. 102, 561 A.2d 244, we reviewed the three categories of GA relief. "Immediate public assistance" is "interim relief pending full investigation of [GA] eligibility." Id. at 111, 561 A.2d 244. The second form of assistance is "continued assistance," which is basically a flat grant for recipients. See In re Rulemaking, N.J.A.C. 10:82-1.2, 117 N.J. 311 (1989). The flat grant is $140 per month for employable persons and $210 per month for unemployable persons. N.J.A.C. 10:85-4.1(b). The final category of GA is "EA," which includes the TRA benefits that are at issue in this case and the welfare-hotel program that was at issue in Williams.

At the time of the Williams decision, we recognized that costs for shelter of one person in a privately-owned motel could reach as high as $2,000 per month. Williams I, supra, 116 N.J. at 114, 561 A.2d 244. Governor Kean had observed, "'there is a better way to use ...


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