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New Jersey copeswith post 9/11 needs

Determining all the damage caused by Sept. 11 can be a difficult job.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | HILLSIDE, N.J. | February 8, 2003

"He is an extremely proud man, who wouldn't seek help on his own."

—Catherine Earl

That the collapse of the World Trade Center was a disaster unlike any other in American history is a plain enough fact. Less obvious, however, is the baffling variety of ill effects people suffered from that disaster.

The damage from an average hurricane, earthquake or plane crash, is, by comparison, easy to see. But determining all the damage caused by Sept. 11 particularly the economic and psychological damage can be a difficult job.

Since these effects are so difficult to quantify and categorize, it's no surprise that the organizations that are trying to help all those affected by Sept. 11 are having a hard time.

None of this is news to the members of the New Jersey Interfaith Partnership for Disaster Recovery; they've been dealing with this confusing situation for more than a year.

The members of the partnership's "unmet needs table" get together every Thursday in this Newark suburb at the New Jersey Food Bank.

They meet in an office on the second floor of this enormous warehouse. Nothing glamorous: the wood paneling is artificial and a missing panel reveals a large hole in the ceiling. Every hour, without warning, the monstrous central heating system roars to life - a terrifying sound that generally launches jittery newcomers from their seats.

The Rev. Dr. Harry Taylor, the executive director of the partnership, tries to calm down the uninitiated. "Don't worry," he says, "that's not a hurricane."

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. caseworkers from various groups come before the committee and request funds for their clients. The members talk it over, and ask questions about the particular case. They determine what funds are available, whether the client is qualified. They make their decision. If it's yes, Taylor's assistant, Amantuallah Anthony, cuts a check right there.

If it's no, the caseworker discovers that the partnership doesn't hand out cash like Monopoly money. This is a lesson which Robin Friedman, a caseworker for El Centro, an advocacy group for immigrants, quickly found out last Thursday.

Friedman had made a request for one of her clients, a self-employed small-business owner who took a big hit because of Sept. 11.

But one of the table's permanent members, the Rev. Chris Miller, is skeptical of "the action plan" a kind of roadmap to financial independence, which Friedman had presented for her client. Miller is also the director of the HEART Unit (Healing Encouragement and Advocacy in Response to Tragedy), a Methodist organization aimed at helping Sept. 11 victims.

"What's this?" says Rev. Miller, holding up the client's action plan. "This isn't a plan. It's a dream."

An acceptable action plan, he said, includes "measurable goals that can be accomplished in a definite period of time."

Miller pointed out that the unmet needs table has only so much money. What the client and his caseworker need to do is provide an assurance that the client won't have to keep coming back for more.

"He can't depend on us," Miller said, "We're not welfare."

If the client has credit card problems, which this one apparently does, then Miller said the action plan should show an effort at debt consolidation.

"If they're not doing debt-counseling," Miller said, "then I don't want to talk to them."

The request from Friedman, which included the payment of basic bills, is denied by the unmet needs table until she and the client work out a better action plan.

The goal, Miller said, is not to turn the clock back and make it seem like Sept. 11 never happened, but to make sure "that their expenses are taken care of by their income."

The unmet needs table can't bring about a complete recovery, but it can help clients become self-supporting, by encouraging them " to retrain or to change their lifestyle significantly enough," he said.

The unmet needs table cannot hand out money to just anyone who asks for it, Miller pointed out. There are applicants, he said, who are holding on to substantial savings accounts "for a rainy day," and yet who still come to the table asking for money.

"Well, in case you missed the storm," Miller tells them, "[Sept. 11] was it."

Other cases are more clear-cut.

Caseworker Catherine Earl presented a request for a man who had drained his retirement and savings account in order to pay off his debts.

The man was a tech worker who was laid off months after Sept. 11. The man, however, suspects that his employers decided shortly after Sept. 11 to fire him, but they waited until he completed an important project. At that point, it was too late for him to qualify for many forms of assistance.

"He is an extremely proud man, who wouldn't seek help on his own," Earl said. But the family's finances got so bad that the man's son came forward seeking assistance.

The Rev. Miller summed up the man's situation: "If things don't turn around soon, he's going to have to go on welfare."

"Wow, this is a really hard case," said Rachel Whitaker, a caseworker for The Salvation Army.

"This is outrageous that people have to use up their retirements," Taylor said.

Earl is hopeful that the man will be able to find work in the near future. "He's apparently very marketable," she said.

The group decides to help the man with some of his expenses. Anthony writes out a check.

Then there are the cases that defy all easy answers.

A postal worker, for example, may have inhaled anthrax when handling one of the tainted letters mailed shortly after Sept. 11.

Since this man's case is not directly related to the collapse of the World Trade Center, or the explosion at the Pentagon, he does not qualify for any of existing programs.

"This is pretty much the only place he can come," Taylor said. "It doesn't make any sense. This is a classic case of why we're here."

The worker was hospitalized and given Cipro. He says he showed symptoms of anthrax infection, and the doctors pumped him full of four different kinds of antibiotics. When they finally got around to testing him for anthrax, the results came up negative. But the postal worker is convinced that if he had been tested sooner, before he was given antibiotics, the test results would have been just the opposite.

Now he's suffering serious psychological problems. He was seeing a doctor, until he lost his job -- and his medical plan -- in September 2002 and could no longer pay the bills.

While the Department of Labor paid his original claims, it hasn't picked up the tab since then. Now he's having serious money problems.

An added problem: the man is not eligible for New Jersey's Phoenix Project, a free mental health service for those who suffered psychological problems because of Sept. 11.

"That's outrageous," Taylor said.

Miller was astonished that the Phoenix program, which has fairly lax eligibility criteria, wouldn't accept the man. "You could have been watching TV on 9-11 and be eligible," he said.

Now there are his bills, which he can't pay, and which no other group will touch. The unmet needs table cuts him a check.

Open hands, empty pockets

The unmet needs table may not be able to keep going much longer, said Rev. Miller, even though all the indications show that the need exists.

For example, Miller said that his HEART Unit received its largest number of applicants just two months ago, in December 2002.

More applications continue to come in, partly because the economic affects of Sept. 11 weren't felt overnight. And even after people began to feel the effects, some of them didn't come forward until they absolutely had to. When these people did seek help most of the deadlines for the traditional sources had lapsed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deadline passed at the end of January, a fact that annoyed both Miller and Taylor, who thought FEMA should have extended it.

Miller, as well as Earl, talked of another problem with FEMA: telephone operators who lacked a basic understanding of the eligibility for Sept. 11 assistance and who wrongly turned down applicants.

Earl said she had encountered this problem numerous times. Sometimes, she said, she would make a call for a client, have an operator say the client wasn't eligible (even though Earl was certain that was not the case), then she would hang up and call again, until she got an operator who understood the full complexity of the Sept. 11 eligibility requirements.

Even worse, Earl said she also had written proof of these mistakes - letters from FEMA officials denying applications that Earl thinks should not have been rejected.

This was a subject that particularly upset Miller.

"Don't even get me started," he said.

"We were trying to get [FEMA] to widen their net, but these were people who qualified and they were still turning them down."

In some cases, Miller said he and his HEART Unit workers were able to catch these errors and intercede with FEMA on behalf of their clients.

"But what about the people out there who don't have an advocate?" Miller asked.

What happens, he said, is that these people wind up at the unmet needs table, which is quickly running out of money.

Taylor said he has sought more funding from both governmental and private sources, but so far he has not received any new funding that will take them through the end of 2003.

"Eventually we're going to have to close cases," Miller said, "and not because they are met."

"But because we've capped out," Taylor added.

Ariel Alonso, a caseworker for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Patterson, brought several cases before the unmet needs table last Thursday.

Taylor was concerned about the funds which Catholic Charities has for Sept. 11 victims.

"Do you have any idea how your funding is going to hold out through the year?" Taylor asked Alonso.

"No," Alonso replied.

Alonso helps displaced workers, as well as the homeless. For the latter, it's even tougher, he said. For, once the unmet needs table gives these people all they can and it comes time for them to leave the shelter, "it's do or die."

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