If you’ve spent any time in downtown D.C., you’ve likely seen 80-year-old Wanda Witter.
Shock white hair, a determined, unsmiling set to her mouth, jeans. She may have asked you for some change and probably didn’t smile if you gave her some. This month you may have also been taken aback by the black eye and stitches across her face.
For years, Witter bedded down for the night at 13th and G streets in Northwest Washington, on the cement in her blue sleeping bag, pulled up tight to keep the rats and cockroaches out. Her tower of three suitcases was stacked on her hand cart and bike-locked to the patio chairs next to her.
She may have even told you that inside those bags is all the paperwork to prove the government owes her more than $100,000. And she was right.
“They kept thinking I was crazy, telling me to get rid of the suitcases,” said Witter, a former machinist from Corning, N.Y., who is divorced and the mother of four adult children.
“I knew, when I committed to homelessness, I had to be very careful about what I did. ‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ I told myself. Because they’ll think I’m a mental case,” she said.
She was right about that, too.
More than a dozen years passed before Witter finally met someone who didn’t think she was a nut job, who finally believed her – a social worker named Julie Turner.
Turner, who works for the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, got a call a nine months ago from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless asking if she could work with Witter.
In fact, Turner had tried to help Witter once before when they met at a soup kitchen. Witter rejected her. This time, though, Turner, who also counsels the homeless vendors who sell the newspaper Street Sense, persuaded Witter to talk to her. Instead of dismissing the hard-edged homeless woman as crazy, Turner patiently waded through the contents of her bags with her.
“She had all the paperwork there, neatly organized, in order. She was right all along. They did owe her all that money,” the 56-year-old social worker marveled.
Witter should be getting her check from Social Security for $99,999 in the next few days, said her new attorney, Daniela de la Piedra, who specializes in Social Security disputes. That’s the largest amount that the Social Security Administration can cut to get her the money fast. She might be owed even more, which would be paid out later, once all the paperwork is done.
It will be the end of a long quest. Witter wandered the streets of Washington for about 16 years, calling the Social Security’s 800-number, sending them letters and trying to get someone to listen to her predicament.
It started after she lost her job as a machinist at Ingersoll-Rand plant in Corning, N.Y., where she made turbine and engine parts.
So Witter moved in with one of her four daughters who lived in Fort Carson, Colo., and started taking classes at Pikes Peak Community College. She graduated in three years and then went to paralegal school, where she earned her certificate.
She thought she could find work in the nation’s capital so she moved to D.C. around 1999.
“Washington was where all the lawyers were supposed to be,” she said.
But finding work wasn’t easy. Who wanted an unsmiling woman on her way to 70 who still carried herself like a machinist in their office? No one, it turned out. She got odd jobs stuffing envelopes or working in offices and ran out of money.
Meanwhile, the Social Security benefits Witter finally decided to draw in 2006 were all over the place. The amounts ranged from $900 to $300 a month, Witter said. And she wanted to know why. She called the agency’s 800 number and asked. No one had an answer.
Sick of the imprecision, she wrote “VOID” across the checks and mailed them back, refusing to cash checks that she knew weren’t right.
Most folks running low on cash would have deposited those checks anyhow. But Witter is stubborn.
“If I just cashed them, who would believe me that they were wrong?” she explained.
When her daughters finally located her – she didn’t tell anyone where she was going – one of them drove to D.C. and tried to get her to move in with her family.
“I told her I had business here, and I couldn’t leave until it was finished. I wasn’t going anywhere without the money they owe me,” she said. Eventually, the daughter bought her mom a cellphone and made her promise to stay in touch.
Too proud to tell them how dire her situation really was, Witter moved into a shelter, joining the approximately 3,600 homeless, single adults in Washington.
When she tried to resume getting the Social Security checks – even the ones that weren’t for the right amount – it didn’t work.
When you’re homeless, getting mail is difficult. The checks were returned to Social Security before they even got to Witter, said her lawyer, de la Piedra.
“She returned all these checks in ’06, returned all her checks in ’07, in ’08,” de la Piedra said. “Several checks came back as undeliverable, with no current address and no bank account. So by October, Social Security stopped sending checks to her. ... They stopped contacting her.”
A spokeswoman from the Social Security Administration said they cannot comment on individual cases.
At the shelters all those years, Witter tried to get someone to listen to her. She explained at different offices that provide homeless services that those suitcases, stacked high and always with her, had the evidence. She was owed money, lots of money, she could prove it.
Witter is not a particularly warm or outgoing person. She isn’t rude, just direct. And suspicious of just about everyone. And obsessed with Social Security.
“They kept sending me to mental counselors. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t mentally ill,” she said.
After all those years, Turner listened.
“She needed economic help, not mental help,” Turner said. “That’s part of the problem with homelessness in D.C. So many cases are written off as being about mental illness. A lot of times, homelessness really is simply about economics.”
In May, Turner took Witter to the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which is affiliated with AARP. And there, de la Piedra sat down and went through all her paperwork, just as Turner had done.
Yup, de la Piedra concluded, this homeless woman is owed a bundle of money.
Witter didn’t smile.
It’s no secret that the Social Security Administration is understaffed. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in a report that the administration’s budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010, while aging baby boomers have swollen its workload.
Last year the administration got 37 million phone calls for help and 41 million office visits. The average appointment wait time was three weeks while more than a million cases for disability payments were backlogged, according to the report.
Taking on a behemoth organization like Social Security is a formidable task, even for someone as dogged as Witter. She would call the 800-number, write letters, haul her luggage-cart rig with all the paperwork inside. The bureaucracy was impenetrable.
While Witter slept on cots and cement, the amount she was owed grew to six figures, de la Piedra estimated.
In June, a Social Security official finally acknowledged the severity of her case and wrote Witter a check for $999 – the maximum allowed if it’s written on the spot, de la Piedra said.
Witter didn’t smile.
Witter opened up an account and deposited it. It was enough to get a good meal, some clothes. But Witter insisted on returning to her spot at 13th and G streets, too frugal to blow her new stash on a hotel. “You never know that the next check will come,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”
And then it happened. Years of being on the street, and she was attacked.
That block where donuts cost $30 a dozen is a different world after nightfall. The homeless women who take up the space across from Astro Doughnuts look out for each other. They bed down, claim their plot, then use the bathroom two blocks up at McDonald’s, one at a time, while guarding each other’s worldly goods. This is how Witter has kept her suitcases safe all those years.
Two weeks ago, she confronted a homeless man digging through another woman’s belongings. He picked up the cafe chairs outside the Au Bon Pain and slammed the stack into Witter’s face, giving her the black eye and cutting her face open.
“That money is coming,” she told herself, while the doctor at the emergency room stitched her up.
The first full payment – the amount Witter was truly owed after all those years in the machine shop and, before that, behind a grocery store cash register – finally arrived last week. She got $1,464.
Turner found her an apartment, a studio efficiency on Capitol Hill for $500 a month. Witter signed the lease and moved in with her little hand cart on Aug. 16.
She didn’t want to unpack those bags, and she wasn’t sure where she would sleep. On the floor under the window? Or on the floor by the closet?
Turner solved that, pulling up in front of the apartment building and unloading her car, packed with donations and things she brought from her own home.
A down comforter, fresh from the dry cleaner. Cups, glasses, a fuzzy bathmat. “Look, Wanda, real silverware,” she said, waving a fork at her before putting it into a drawer.
Witter didn’t smile.
Turner brought an extra blow-up mattress, the high-end kind with plush covering and its own pump.
“I don’t want this,” Witter said. “Years on the streets, my bones hurt. I want a real bed.”
“We’re going to get you a real bed, Wanda, but this is just a baby step,” Turner explained, on her hands and knees, blowing the bed up.
She took Witter to Wal-Mart, where she used donated money from a church to buy a small television and rabbit ear antennas. “Five channels, Wanda!” No smile.
Witter spent $77 of her own money. She was most excited about the pillow she carefully chose for its firmness. A little smile.
She won’t buy a window unit air conditioner or a hot plate or anything more indulgent than that pillow and some necessities. She still has a hard time believing that the $100,000 will come.
The money is coming, de la Piedra tells Witter, almost daily.
Witter closed the shades on her little room, ready to spend her first night in a place she couldn’t comfortably call her own.
“I need my privacy now,” she said, before her entourage of helpers left. No smile yet. Because she’s still waiting.