LACONIA — Earlier this month city officials were reminded of their binding obligation to assist the penniless when, after a hearing in Belknap County Superior Court, Justice James D. O'Neill, III immediately ordered the city to house a woman and her two children at the Landmark Hotel.
The general assistance law, one of the oldest of all state statutes, reads "whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has residence there."
On Dec. 31, the single mother and her children, ages 13 and 17, were evicted from the three-bedroom apartment where they had lived for more than six years after repeatedly violating the terms of their lease. At the time, Elliott Berry of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, who represented the woman in court, said that she had about $1,411 in cash, and five days later received another $259 in child support. However, by Jan. 11 she had spent all she had on a hotel room, foodstuffs and other essentials.
The woman applied to the Welfare Department for emergency assistance, requesting $572.25 to pay for a room at the Landmark Hotel for another 21 days. Instead, the city granted her sufficient funds for two nights, and on Jan. 13 denied her request for further assistance. Catholic Charities and the Laconia Congregational Church paid for the hotel room through Jan. 15, when she was told she and her children would have to leave the hotel.
On Jan. 15, the woman asked the court to order the city to provide housing for her and her children at the Landmark Inn until Jan. 27, when she would have sufficient funds to rent an apartment.
In court, the city, represented by attorney Laura Spector-Morgan, accepted that the woman had $1,670 when she was evicted, but claimed she spent $703 for the hotel room between Dec. 31 and Jan. 10, leaving $967 for which she had failed to account. She said that the woman understood the process for administering assistance from past experience, yet failed to comply by accounting for past income and benefits. Likewise, the city said that her monthly income of $2,149 exceeded her necessary expenses of $1,287, rendering her ineligible for further assistance.
On behalf of the woman, Berry told the court that without assistance the woman and her children would be "living on the street and insisted that "current need is the basis for determining eligibility for general assistance, and that how a person becomes poor and unable to support herself is irrelevant." He noted that in 1873 the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that "it makes no difference, so far as regards the obligation upon the town, whether a person be reduced to necessity by his own misconduct or fault, or by the wrongful or careless act of another, or by pure accident or misfortune."
O'Neill agreed and ordered the city to house the woman and her children at the Landmark Hotel until Jan. 27.
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