For almost a decade, this advertisement on New York City subway systems haunted me:
“Panhandling on the subway is illegal. Give to a reputable charity instead– UJA Federation is one such charity”.
Having worked at ‘charities’ for more than twenty years, I viewed the crackdown on homeless people who worked with cups in the tunnels as a sign as what was to come in American urban culture and that there was no real means to act charitable in New York City, despite good intentions.
It was rumored, just prior to September 11th, that New York City’s mayor started arresting homeless people in the subways, and after spending several nights in jail, the vagrants were offered a one way ticket out of New York City. I wondered what UJA did with its donations if homeless were being shipped away. Perhaps, I realized, UJA purchased the bus tickets for the city. Anything is possible in this town where most cash dealings take place under the table.
I was fired from a charity that was partially funded by UJA Federation. I was grounded for “insubordinate behavior” after refusing to take minutes at board meetings. The reason I refused to use my skill of writing to capture what was said during meetings was because what was being reported was obviously a fat lie, and someone was stealing money and there was no way to write such lies without appearing dishonest myself.
I smelled a Madoff fraud.
Months before the big bubble broke, during a meeting of directors in 2006, it was reported by representatives from UJA that $3 million from the Youth Counseling League’s endowment fund was overstated on previous annual reports and the agency was forced to re-adjust the program’s budgetary statistics, reducing the endowment fund from $8 Million to $5 Million.
According to the President of the non-profit organization, funding was overstated on program budgets for more than five years because the state of New York had purposely over-paid the charity in Medicaid funding and now wanted it back.
The President explained that Medicaid overpayments now needed to be returned to the state, and the funding would have to come from the Youth Counseling League’s budget, because that was where the overpayments from Medicaid had been placed in years past.
I dropped my pen and sucked my teeth realizing that even if the state of New York made overpayments for mental health services, the money wasn’t used as it should have been. I nearly found myself homeless on the street following my incarceration for schizophrenia and if it had not been for the job I got, writing lies for UJA, I would have been homeless and shipped out of this town on a bus.
I felt helpless, trapped and infuriated that there was no public assistance for me because charities were investing money in the stock market instead. As it turns out, Bernard Madoff was funding his own ego and his close friends, who somehow managed to convince commuters to hand over their small change, were behind the huge swing in the Dow Jones Industrial averages to record highs in late 2006. Yet there I was, with Schizophrenia, feeling like a false-profit, writing lies for not-for profits, simply because there was no place in society for the mentally ill.
Sure there would be homeless schizophrenic people in the future, but I needed help then, not tomorrow, and now, all the small change is locked away in trust funds for future doctors and lawyers to be.
“Why is this the first time we’ve heard of these overpayments and why were they not returned initially?” Joyce Cowin, the board chairperson screamed from the end of a long table.
“This is standard operating procedure for all charities with the state Medicaid system,” President Paul Levine explained. “At least we were smart enough to invest the money, other charities spent it,” Levine rebuffed, looking to me to be sure I captured his words on paper.
I thought of the empty paper cups and the homeless who were gone and couldn’t write another word.
As I watch the list of charities affected by Bernard L. Madoff grow, I can’t help but regret my insubordinate behavior. UJA Federation put out a press release yesterday, boasting that the Jewish managed charity was never invested with Madoff securities, but having sat on the boards of such institutions, I know that likely a lot is being mis-reported.
Madoff was a major donor to the UJA-Federation of New York. The charity placed a death notice in the New York Times recently, extending sympathies to the Madoff family following the death of a family member. The notice mentioned Bernard Madoff, and referred to the family as “cherished friends and leaders whose deep commitment to the New York Jewish community profoundly impacts millions of lives.”
At least now, I understand why I couldn’t write for them. Nothing made sense– so many lies to craft. I may be moments away from starvation during this time of economic crisis, but at least I still have honor and a pen and I have taken it upon myself to give to whoever the fuck I want to give to from now on.