Back in April, James Brady was on his daily walk on the streets of Hackensack, New Jersey. He was living in the Bergen County homeless shelter, having fallen on hard times after becoming unemployed and depressed. On looking down, he saw a bank envelope which, he discovered, contained $850 — which he turned into the police.
No one claimed the money and it ended up being given to Brady. But then he found out that, because he had not reported the $850 as income, he wasn’t just in danger of losing General Assistance and Medicaid benefits. He outright lost them.
Agatha Toomey, director of the Hackensack Human Services Department, says that she was just acting in accordance with the rules in canceling Brady’s benefits. According to these, “any lump sum payment” must be reported as income. “I’m sorry but we had to — I had to — follow regulations. He only pays five dollars [a month] in rent,” as Toomey said in NorthJersey.com.
Brady only pays $5 in rent thanks to a county housing voucher that provides $1,090. Brady had no money when he found the $850 and turned it in because he thought it was the right thing to do and, as NorthJersey.com says, he “didn’t want to take money from anyone who could be worse off than he is.” Once a news photographer and market data analyst, Brady had become traumatized as he was scheduled to be at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, for an event. After using up his savings and retirement funds, he ended up homeless.
When he found the $850, things had been looking up for Brady as he was receiving psychiatric care and medication. For turning in the money, he received a commendation from the Hackensack City Council and became a minor celebrity as word of his being a Good Samaritan spread. Aetrex Worldwide Inc., a shoe company based in Teaneck, even offered to give him a free pair of sneakers as that was an item on a wish list he’d made when he found the $850.
In July, thanks to the county housing voucher, Brady moved into an apartment in Hackensack. As NorthJersey.com details, because Brady had a new address, he was informed he could no longer apply for his Medicaid and $210 monthly general assistance from the county, but instead from Hackensack’s Human Services Department. After an initial meeting with Toomey, Brady showed up for another one in November but was told it had been canceled. Then he got a letter Thursday notifying him that his benefits had been denied from October 18 through December 31.
Brady emphasizes that he simply had no idea he had to report the $850 as income. “I had already proven my honesty by turning in the $850. They were treating me like I was a dishonest individual, like I was trying to cheat them out of the money.”
The loss of Medicaid for his health needs worries Brady the most, more than the loss of the $210, his only funds for non-food items.
But this isn’t a story about how good deeds can go sour. Just as many praised him for his honesty in April, support and sympathy have been pouring in for his new predicament. Hackensack mayor John Labrosse said that Brady’s losing his benefits “just shows you our system has some major flaws when taking care of people.” Councilwoman Rose Greenman said she found the law “very narrowly interpreted.”
The Hackensack City Council has actually been thinking of closing its Human Services Department and shifting local benefits administration to the county, a change that could save about $400,000. In that case, Brady would not have ended up losing his benefits.
State assemblyman Gordon Johnson supports the measure. He sums up Brady’s case, pointing out that “Where is the compassion in this? … He found some money, he turned it in, and now is being victimized for being an honest person.”
After readers expressed concerned about Brady losing his benefits, the United Way of Bergen County has established a dedicated fund for him. 100 percent of the money donated will go to help Brady. Says Tom Toronto, president of the county United Way chapter:
“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. Then to discover that, through an irrational, bureaucratic rule, he is punished for that. I think it’s unconscionable.”
Since help in the form of cash could have led to “more unintended consequences for Brady,” the United Way plans to work through officials to identify Brady’s needs (such as medication, food, clothing, therapy) and then provide those goods and services for him. If the amount of funds donated is greater than what Brady needs in the short term, they could be put towards something like job training.
Brady has an appointment with Legal Services of New Jersey on November 12 and hopes he might get his benefits restored. As he says, “I’m not trying to hide anything.”
Photo from Thinkstock