LEWISTON — Katrina LaCourse sits on the stack of blankets where she sleeps, leafing through the paperwork that could spell the undoing of her cobbled-together life.

Since August, she has been among the roughly 225 monthly recipients of general assistance in Lewiston, where city officials have stepped up enforcement of eligibility rules for the aid, promising indictments and prosecutions.

On Friday, the city informed LaCourse that starting April 15, she would be cast from the welfare rolls for 120 days, eliminating the $420 in rent vouchers that keep her from living on the streets. In the notification, officials say she willfully and falsely represented her eligibility, and that she did not report a roommate. She has not been summoned to court, and she plans to challenge the allegations.

“There’s nothing I did wrong,” said LaCourse, who will meet with the city Friday to explore her options. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”

Mayor Robert Macdonald’s highly visible announcement Tuesday that his administration had purged 84 welfare recipients from the system, including 50 for alleged fraud, highlights how Lewiston is attempting to shed the perception that its system is easy to game.

Skip Girouard, 76, who said he works seven days a week in his flower shop on Lisbon Street, applauded the initiative, and he hopes the city will pursue jail time for convicted offenders.

“Lewiston is known as a place you can get welfare,” he said. “It’s sad. I think Macdonald is trying to straighten out the reputation.”

The enforcement initiative also pleased Debra Clarke, 56. Clarke oversees a crew that sweeps city streets, shovels snow and cleans parks in exchange for the workers’ rent vouchers. Additionally, each worker must apply to six jobs every week and attend career classes as part of the “workfare” program.

She said that in the past four months, she’s seen an improvement in the quality of the workers the city sends her way. In the past, Clarke said, some volunteers were unwilling to labor for their rent, exhibiting an attitude of entitlement she said was learned over time.

“It’s a vicious circle,” she said. “They were brought up on welfare and don’t know any better. You can’t expect everyone to do everything for you.”

One worker who donned an orange vest that day was Josh Emerson, 29, of Lewiston, who was incarcerated for 13 months after he was convicted of a 2010 assault. Free since Jan. 20, Emerson has been on the program for about a month.

The assistance covers his rent and heat and even provides $20 a month for personal items. It’s not his first stint on the dole. He was enrolled in the assistance about 3 years ago, he said; and since then, he’s noticed the stringent requirements.

“They used to be real lenient on a lot of things,” Emerson said, “but I guess they’re cracking down.”

Like many people on assistance, he was among the dozens who lined up for a hot lunch at Trinity Episcopal Church. There, others on workfare earn their housing vouchers by cooking in the kitchen.

About 35 of the volunteers help serve the meals, said C.J. Jacobs, the kitchen manager, one of the few full-time employees at the church. Jacobs said some of the workfare volunteers earn food service credentials that could help them find employment.

The job market remains tough, however.

Erin Reed, development director at the Jubilee Center, said that in a single day she sometimes will help complete 20 applications, sometimes with little results.

“We’ve lost a lot of great jobs,” said Reed, as people streamed through the brightly lit kitchen, spooning baked chicken, boiled hot dogs, gravy, and pasta onto styrofoam trays.

Reed said that she wished the city could do more to help people find work, and the allegations of fraud not withstanding, she said demand for services remains high, noting that 1,000 families are enrolled in a food pantry program.

“Maybe there’s fraud, but we don’t see it here,” said Reed, who lauded the workfare volunteers as hardworking and honest.

“I don’t know what I’d do without this crew.”

General assistance aid is safety net of last resort for people who cannot afford the most basic necessities such as food, shelter, or medication. The program, mandated by a state law, is administered by municipalities, but the state pays for the bulk of the cost.

Last year, $13.23 million of the nearly $17.5 million in assistance came from state coffers, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Gov. Paul LePage has targeted the line item in his biennial budget, proposing to cap the cost at $10.17 million statewide, part of a plan to bridge a $112 million gap in the Health and Human Services departmental budget.

In Portland, the state’s largest administrator of the aid, fraud cases in the last year represented 3 percent of 2,171 cases, or 103 instances. During the six-week period of investigation in Lewiston that ended Feb. 25, the city examined about 350 cases and found a fraud rate closer to 15 percent, said Sue Charron, Lewiston Director of Social Services.

Of the 50 fraud cases, Charron said, 35 involved applicants who falsified forms that are supposed to document where recipients are seeking work. Some of them had made up businesses or claimed they applied to a business when they never did. The other 15 were cited for falsely claiming they had no assets or income or other application infractions. The other 34 cases were non-fraud related.

Lying on the forms is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail, according to the Lewiston Police Department, which has issued four summonses and is pursuing eight more. As many as 50 could face charges, Charron said.

Paul Poliquin, a 59-year-old former Lewiston City Council member who owns a clothing and shoe store on Lisbon Street, said he will wait to see whether the mayor’s efforts will bear fruit in the form of convictions.

Poliquin, who left office in 1995, said he thinks Lewiston has outgrown its reputation as a welfare hub.

“I’m willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt,” Poliquin said. “I want to see it followed through.”

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