Wanda Witter, 80, spent a decade fighting the federal government to return her hard-earned money after she recognized an error in her Social Security payouts. The divorced mother of four worked hard as a machinist and always kept perfectly organized records regarding her income. As her standard of living collapsed, Wanda refused to give up her fight and dragged those records in a pair of suitcases as she wandered the streets of Washington. People thought she was crazy, but she wouldn’t give up until she was paid what she was owed. Finally a social worker named Juile Turner took the time to hear Wanda’s story and discovered she was right all along.
“They kept thinking I was crazy, telling me to get rid of the suitcases,” Wanda told The Washington Post. “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.”
Turner was working for the Downtown Cster of Congregations when she recieved a call from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Turner met with Wanda and waited patiently as the homeless woman explained her case. Turner was astonished at what she saw, “She had all the paperwork there, neatly organized, in order. She was right all along. They did owe her all that money.”
With the help of Daniela de la Piedra, an attorney specializing in Social Security disputes, Wanda will finally be paid. A check for $99,999 will be written this week, but she may be entitled to an even larger payout that will require more paperwork.
Her merciless ordeal began when Wanda lost her job as a machinist making turbine and engine parts at Ingersoll-Rand in Corning. She moved in with her daughter while studying to become a paralegal at Pikes Peak Community College in Fort Carson, Colorado. After earning her certificate, Wanda moved to Washington D.C. for work. At the age of 70, Wanda struggled to find employment in a legal office. She worked temp jobs, but slowly ran out of money. She finally decided to start drawing Social Security checks in 2006, and that’s when she noticed something was wrong.
Her payout was never consistent. The amount would vary wildly from $300 to $900 every month. When she realized there was an error, Wanda stopped cashing the checks and tried to contact the Social Security agency, but no one could give her an answer. She started returning her checks, refusing to cash them until the amount was corrected. “If I just cashed them, who would believe me that they were wrong?” she told the Post.
After three years she had become homeless and maintaining correspondance with the agency became even more difficult. “She returned all these checks in ’06, returned all her checks in ’07, in ’08,” her lawyer told the Post “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.”
Wanda stayed with homeless shelters and tried to find legal help, but no one would listen to her. “They kept sending me to mental counselors. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t mentally ill,” Wanda said.