The caretaker industry

June 20, 1996|By J. PETER SABONIS

LEO NOT ONLY read The Sun, he wore it. Under his baseball cap. He said it made his cap waterproof, a necessity because he spent most of his day outside waiting for the ''Rescue Mission'' to open.

When Leo died early last year, the newspaper was still with him, but not as a shield from the elements. It was on the table next to his nursing-home bed, in its more customary role as chronicler of events. The Sun failed to chronicle Leo's death, but weeks later it ran a series about the lives of people like him, alcoholics and drug addicts who received cash assistance through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. The series was praised by public officials and distributed to all members of Congress last spring.

As an alcoholic SSI recipient and Sun worshiper, Leo would have had a lot to say about the series. His death was untimely in that respect.

But I'm glad he won't be around to experience the fallout next winter. That's when more than 250,000 drug abusers and alcoholics who are currently receiving SSDI or SSI will be cut off from assistance, pursuant to federal legislation. Were he alive, Leo's check -- which I managed on his behalf -- would stop as of January 1997. And I have little doubt that without any monthly income whatsoever, he would have soon been wearing The Sun again.

Congressional action was fueled, in part, by newspaper accounts of disability-assistance abuse. The tales, no doubt, were true. Some addicts do not have their benefits managed by others, and use their monthly checks exclusively for drugs and alcohol.

But in my 10 years of working with addicts in shelters and on the streets, I have seen far more cases where benefits were misused not by addicts, but by those designated by Social Security to be their caretakers. The law requires an alcoholic or addict to have a ''representative payee,'' to whom the check is paid and who has the responsibility to use it for the ''benefit'' of the disabled. Leo had a payee at the time I met him. Like most on the streets with few social or familial ties, he trusted the wrong person. His payee was a casual acquaintance who was not only pocketing Leo's monthly check, but already had appropriated Leo's ''lump-sum'' retroactive amount of $4,500 for his own benefit.

We never caught the payee or recouped the money. But it was easy enough to have Leo's payee responsibilities switched to me. What was more difficult was protecting Leo from further exploitation. With rents averaging $350 in Baltimore and Leo sporting a $354 monthly check, most landlords saw him as an rTC eviction waiting to happen. But there were many ''caretakers'' who understood the economics of gathering dozens of ''Leos'' in decrepit rowhouses and exploiting their vulnerabilities. To them, Leo was a prize.

There was the friend of the mission's director, who insisted that the 6-foot-square area she provided in a room shared by two others, the shared bathroom and single daily meal were worth the price of Leo's entire check. There was the board and care operator, with her business cards and professional air, who physically abused Leo and neglected to feed him.

Lost souls

And then there was the guy at the furniture store near the mission, who took Leo into his home and asked if he could relieve me of the payee duties. Leo seemed amenable and I was about to agree until I visited the four-bedroom West Baltimore rowhouse and found it stuffed with a dozen lost souls, all destitute, all addicted, most mentally ill, and all sleeping on flea-infested mattresses squeezed together in each room like puzzle pieces. The kitchen was filthy and rodent-infested. I soon found similar houses in Pimlico and in East Baltimore.

I rushed to get the places closed down and the operators out of business; but where were the residents to go? The competitive housing market didn't want them. The supportive-service housing system, which linked social workers with persons like Leo, was woefully underfunded and its waiting list long. The same was true for publicly subsidized housing. My efforts to right a wrong would do nothing more than increase the numbers on the street.

I thus resolved to save only Leo. For several years, we journeyed through this dark world of the caretaker ''industry,'' like Valjean navigating the sewers of Paris past Thernadier and the other human scavengers. Each month, for want of options, I held my nose and paid a portion of Leo's check to some shylock house operator. What little was left would go to Leo.

Leo's liberation finally came when he qualified for senior assisted public housing and a social worker was able to land him a small studio apartment. I'll never forget his pleasure upon receiving the key to it, his amazement when told he had his own mailbox, and his excitement when we went to shop for furniture.

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