$99,999 Payout to Homeless Woman Highlights Social Security's Struggles

The Social Security Administration is a "tangled mess," says one social worker.

ByABC News
August 24, 2016, 11:30 AM
A homeless man rests on his sleeping bag in the street next to a department store.
A homeless man rests on his sleeping bag in the street next to a department store.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

— -- Wanda Witter, 80, who up until last week was homeless and living on D.C.’s streets, has received $99,999 in Social Security retirement benefits, but she could be just one of many people owed cash because of the “tangled mess” at the Social Security Administration, according to the social worker who helped her.

“Wanda’s story has been told. But there are a lot of other people in Wanda’s position,” said Julie Turner, who works for the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a nonprofit group that helps D.C.’s poor, low-income and homeless communities.

“When I first started this job, I actually had clients that died in shelters without ever receiving their benefits,” Turner said in an interview with ABC News. She said she has worked for the Downtown Cluster of Congregations since 1987.

Inaction by the government, she said, is “forcing another can of cat food on elderly people."

“You could write books on this thing,” she said.

Turner helped Witter win a lengthy battle against the Social Security Administration, according to The Washington Post, which first reported Witter’s story.

Witter spent years trying to get someone at the Social Security Administration to listen to her, carting around suitcases with all the paperwork she needed to prove her claims.

“She was owed money, lots of money, and could prove it,” the Post wrote.

But agency bureaucracy and her status as a homeless woman kept Witter from the money she was owed, according to the Post, which also noted she was referred to mental health workers and therapists and went unheard for years.

Problems at the Social Security Administration inevitably affect the country’s most vulnerable, Turner said.

“People who are homeless remain homeless, and people remain disabled if they’re disabled,” she said.

Her view is backed by a recent report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that highlights the strain the agency is under, detailing the effects of rising workloads, funding cuts and disability payment backlogs.

The report states that the core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 and that demands have reached an “all-time high as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These budget cuts forced the agency to impose a hiring freeze in 2011, which led to a deterioration in its phone service, according to the report. In 2016 the average caller can expect to spend over 15 minutes on hold, and nearly 10 percent of callers will receive busy signals.

The cuts also affected field offices: 64 field offices and 533 mobile offices have closed since 2010, and hours for staff have been reduced at the remaining offices, according to the report. Last year, field staffers assisted 41 million visitors, and field offices received 28 million calls. Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks, but by 2015, fewer than half could, the report states.

The backlog of pending cases, which includes appeals from those who have been denied benefits, has grown by over 50 percent since 2010, topping 1 million in 2015, according to the report.

“The hearings backlog has a high human cost. Waiting a year and a half for a final decision, as a typical appellant does, causes financial and medical hardship. Some applicants lose their homes or must declare bankruptcy while awaiting a hearing. Their health often worsens; some even die,” the report states.

“Dealing with the Social Security Administration is a very, very difficult system to manipulate. It’s not user friendly,” Turner said, especially for “poor and homeless people who don’t have access to computers.”

She added, “These are systemic obstacles for homeless people trying to get their benefits.”

But the Social Security program is supposed to work. According to the report, it’s one of the nation’s most popular and effective programs, because it provides a foundation of income on which workers can build for their retirement.

About 59 million retirees, disabled workers, survivors and their families receive these benefits each year, a number that has grown by 6 million in the past five years, according to the report.

But the Social Security Administration’s troubles have left some social workers like Turner worried.

“The country is getting ready to change administrations in the next few months, but I don’t hear anyone but Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren talking about Social Security,” Turner said, referring to senators from Vermont and Massachusetts, respectively.

Turner, to protect client confidentiality, wouldn’t comment on Witter’s case but acknowledged her determination.

“It took a village for this case, but a lot of it was Wanda and her willingness and tenacity and her ability to really dig deep. You can’t do any of this without a client that’s willing to work with you.”

The Social Security Administration did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.