America's most wanted welfare plan Addicts squander checks on drugs

January 23, 1995|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writers

They found Delmont Williams' body in an alley off Harlem Avenue, lying under the bald branches of a withered willow tree, staring up at the afternoon sky through dead eyes on "check day."

He had enough alcohol and heroin in his veins to intoxicate three men.

And you paid for it.

The homeless Army veteran overdosed with money from a Social Security program that doles out monthly checks to 8 million people who are too old or disabled to work. But 250,000 of them are believed to be hard-core substance abusers who routinely squander the cash on drugs and alcohol.

Beginning Friday, the new Republican-led majority in Congress will examine the problem in hearings on Capitol Hill. Some are already vowing to give addicts the ax.

But they will soon learn that it's easier said than done because of one little-known fact: Most of the addicts and alcoholics on the rolls -- perhaps as many as three out of four -- are retarded, blind, crippled or suffer from some other disability that would still entitle them to the $458 monthly checks.

And Congress has refused for two decades to provide treatment for addicts in spite of a chronic shortage of even the most basic rehabilitation. Fearing that any appearance of coddling drug abusers would invite voter backlash, the nation's lawmakers have ignored social workers and drug counselors who say that intensive long-term treatment is the only answer.

"The first reaction of right-wing conservatives will be to gut the program completely," says Dr. Sally Satel, a Yale psychiatrist. "And the real liberal types won't want it touched. But either of those courses would simply perpetuate this crisis."

Says Pam Rodriguez, a Chicago drug counselor: "We have never seen a population like this before. For years, Social Security saw its job as to simply write checks. Now, we're getting [people] and they're ruined. We don't even know where to start."

Checks for the drug abusers are costing taxpayers $1.4 billion a year. Most are alcoholics. The vast majority are men. Almost half are black. Their average age is 42. And few ever kick their habits. Rather, they usually end up dead or in prison within seven years of receiving their first check.

The case of Delmont Williams is typical.

A bearded father of two who drifted from North Carolina to Baltimore, his medical records show that Social Security knew he was a hard-core alcoholic when it mailed him his first check in 1987.

His liver was swollen from years of heavy drinking. His heart was congested. Half his teeth were missing. And his skull -- bashed in years earlier in a drunken brawl -- was webbed with cracks like a piece of glued-together pottery. He suffered from seizures and mental illnesses.

There could be little question that he wasn't capable of holding a job, or that he would squander the money Social Security gave him for his fractured skull and manic depression unless he got off drugs and alcohol. But the agency offered him no help. Just a check.

"Delmont knew he was dying," says Curtis Mann, a drug counselor at the Health Care for the Homeless free clinic on Park Avenue. "All the dealers came circling around him on check day like vultures. A week later, he'd crash from whatever dope he was using and feel terrible.

"Those were the times that he'd go looking for help. The problem was that we could never find it for him before that damn check came in the mail on the first of the month and the whole cycle started all over again."

In a city with some 2,400 addicts on the disability rolls and the highest per capita rate of heroin-related emergency room admissions in the country, there is not even short-term treatment available for nine out of 10 addicts, the nonprofit Abell Foundation found last year.

And the kind of in-patient care that removes hard-core addicts from their drug-infested haunts long enough to learn a new way of life is not available at all in Baltimore.

Time and again, Delmont Williams was confronted by waiting lists of up to a year, then headed back out onto the street to blow his aid money on blinding binges that ended in trash-strewn alleys, jail cells and hospitals all over the city.

On the afternoon of June 1, police came upon his corpse in a West Baltimore alley wrapped in a filthy red polo shirt. Just four hours earlier, he had picked up his last $446 check from a mail drop at the clinic and cashed it at a nearby liquor store.

Delmont Williams died homeless, stoned and alone at 49.

"With his history, there's no way he should have been walking around with that much money in his pocket," says Lauren Siegel, a social worker at the free clinic. "But they gave it to him anyway. Every month, no strings attached, the check would come and Delmont would spend it on drugs and alcohol. Until it finally killed him."

The money came from a program known as SSI, for Supplemental Security Income -- a plan set up by Congress two decades ago with little deliberation or debate. The idea was to provide food, shelter and clothing to disabled poor people.

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