Hackensack Homeless Man Loses Benefits Over Money He Turned In – Unfair? [POLL]
One of the wackier stories to come out this past week involves a homeless man from Hackensack who found $850 in the street, and thinking it may have belonged to someone in worse condition than he, turned it into police.
After the money had not been claimed, police returned the money to him last month, but because he didn’t claim the “windfall” as income to the city’s Human Services Department, the director of the department, Agatha Toomey, denied him benefits through the end of the year?
Those benefits included Medicaid plus $210 for general assistance.
Bureaucratic snafu? Was the director of the department following the proper protocol in doing her job, or should she have made an exception in his case?
James Brady, the formerly homeless man who earned national praise for turning in $850 he found on the street in Hackensack, learned the hard way this week that no good deed goes unpunished.
Brady was denied General Assistance and Medicaid benefits by the Hackensack Human Services Department through Dec. 31 because he failed to report new income he received. The income, according to the agency, was the cash he found on Main Street last spring and that police returned to him in October after no one claimed it.
Agatha Toomey, director of Human Services, said she was just following rules when she denied the benefits. The rules, she said, require any lump sum payment to be reported as income.
“I’m sorry but we had to — I had to — follow regulations,” she said. “He only pays five dollars [a month] in rent.”
Brady, a former news photographer and market data analyst, fell on hard times more than a decade ago when he became unemployed and suffered from depression. He was supposed to be at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 for a business event — and the knowledge that he could have been killed traumatized him, he said.
After using all his savings and retirement funds, he ended up on the streets and later at the Bergen County homeless shelter in Hackensack. He had left the shelter for his daily walk on April 16 when he found and turned in the money he found in a bank envelope on the sidewalk.
Brady said he was doing what he believed was right and didn’t want to take money from anyone who could be worse off than he is.
Around that time, life was looking up for Brady. He had received psychiatric help and medication that helped him turn his life around. He got the $850, a commendation from the City Council, and a bit of fame as his story became known across the United States. Readers wrote to praise him, and Aetrex Worldwide Inc., a shoe company based in Teaneck, offered him a free pair of sneakers — one of the items on his wish list when he got the $850.
In July, Brady moved into an apartment in Hackensack with a county housing voucher that covered all but $5 of his $1,095 rent. Because of his new address, he was told he had to apply for his Medicaid and $210 monthly general assistance from the city’s Human Services Department, instead of from the county.
At one meeting with Toomey, Brady saw a copy of The Record’s story about his actions in finding and later receiving the money that he found. He was asked how he had spent the money. He bought toilet paper, napkins, a bath mat and the sandwich that he craved the day he received the money, he said.
Brady said he did not know he had to report the income. “I’m not trying to hide anything,” he said.
He showed up for another appointment at the office Wednesday, but it had been canceled. He got a letter Thursday notifying him that his benefits had been denied from Oct. 18 through Dec. 31.
The $210 has been Brady’s only source of funds for non-food items, but it’s the loss of Medicaid that really worries him.
Brady has stayed healthy with continued medical support. He sees a therapist and a psychiatrist and takes medications. He has an upcoming dental procedure to fix a tooth infection.
Mayor John Labrosse said it was “a shame” that Brady was in this situation precisely because he was honest and turned in the money.
“It just shows you our system has some major flaws when taking care of people,” he said. “There should have been some way to work this out and get around this and I hope something can be done about it.
Toomey said she could not apply different standards for clients. “I’m sorry that I had to re-determine his eligibility and find him not eligible for a couple of months,” Toomey said, “but then I wouldn’t be doing my job if I made him eligible.”
It seems that anyone trying to do the “right thing” winds up on the short end.
However, would we be so understanding if the director of Human Services were not doing her job as meticulously as she had been with each and every client?
Given the number of cases we hear about for welfare fraud, food stamp program abuses and the like, perhaps we shouldn’t be so harsh on one public official who’s sticking to the literal interpretation of the regulations.
Besides, some good does come out of it, and that is the outpouring of sympathy for Brady.
Arun Arora, 42, of Chicago, who read about Brady on the Internet, saw someone being punished for his good intentions.
“It was a very touching story,” said Arora, who wanted to help Brady. “He’s a human being. And given his background, I’m happy to write a check to help him.”
Others, like Bob Wiseman of Wayne, also contacted the paper in an effort to help. Wiseman said he was ready to cut a $500 check.
“It was just moving,” Wiseman said. “The poor guy is one of many people who have lost their job, but he still had his moral compass.”
On Saturday, Bergen County’s United Way set up an account specifically for Brady through its Compassion Fund.
“This outpouring stems from: Here’s a fellow who behaved admirably, who clearly could have used the money himself, but he showed a tremendous amount of pride and honesty,” said Tom Toronto, president of the county United Way chapter. “Then to discover that, through an irrational, bureaucratic rule, he is punished for that. I think it’s unconscionable.”
The money the non-profit collects on Brady’s behalf will go entirely to helping him, Toronto said. Mindful that help in the form of cash could have more unintended consequences for Brady, who relies on government aid, Toronto said his group plans to work with Brady and county housing officials to identify Brady’s needs — medication, food, clothing, therapy — and will provide those goods and services for him. If the donations exceed Brady’s short-term needs, they could be used for long-term help like tuition for job training, Toronto said.
“James was on an upward path,” Toronto said. “Our goal is to put him back on that path and keep him on that path.”
I truly hope Brady gets back on his feet; and commend those who’ve shown their appreciation for his honesty. And while it would seem that there is such a thing as being too honest, do you blame Toomey for doing her job?