Hackensack’s homeless Samaritan loses benefits over $850 he found and turned in
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Posted by:HANNAN ADELY
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.
James Brady holding a letter from Hackensack denying him General Assistance and Medicaid benefits for not reporting as income $850 he turned in to police. He got the cash when no one claimed it.
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.
The good deed turned Brady, who was homeless at the time he found the money, into a minor celebrity. He was featured in news reports across the country and honored by the Hackensack City Council. Now, he said, he’s being treated like a crook.
“This is stupid,” Brady said. “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.”
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 Countyhomeless 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.
“I don’t want to incur any bills that I have to pay out of pocket because I don’t have the money,” he said.
Michael Mordaga, the city police director who lauded Brady’s honesty after he turned in the cash, declined to comment about his benefits situation on Friday.
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.”
Councilwoman Rose Greenman said there was a need to look at every aspect of the situation to see how a person like Brady can be helped.
“I think it’s very narrowly interpreted for someone to deny this kind of person,” she said.
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.”
Toomey has a reputation for running a strict and meticulous operation. She said her department upholds the rules but that people who are eligible will get the assistance they need.
The denial of Brady’s benefits comes at a time when the Human Services Department is at risk of being closed. City Council officials said closing the office, and shifting local benefits administration to the county, will save about $400,000.
Gordon Johnson, a state assemblyman who represents Hackensack, has supported the measure, saying the county could provide better services and save the city money.
Johnson said he was disappointed to hear that Brady had been denied benefits because of a one-time influx of money.
“That’s a bit much to ask a homeless person who has a windfall of $800 — which is not really a windfall for his limited income,” Johnson said.
“Where is the compassion in this? The person was honest. He found some money, he turned it in, and now is being victimized for being an honest person. It makes no sense,” Johnson said.
Brady has an appointment with Legal Services of New Jersey on Tuesday and hopes someone there can help him restore his benefits. As a frequent advocate for the homeless population in Hackensack, Brady said he also hopes that the department will be more sensitive toward clients.
“They don’t seem to want to help people,” he said.