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About Us & Our Mission

Living with the Dual Reality of Mental Impairment and Homelessness

By Shannon Boyle

There are five million stories in the Bay Area. This is one of them. He is a person much like many that a San Franciscan might see walking down the street every day. A 34 year-old African American male with an easy smile and gentle manner. But every day Barry Rollins* lives with the reality and dual stigmas of significant mental impairment and homelessness – one of the estimated 8,500-15,000 homeless residents of the city.

As a result of his impairment, Rollins is unable to work. His illness has been well documented, so he now receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits from the federal government – benefits automatically deposited in his bank account each month. But when he came to BASF’s Homeless Advocacy Project’s (HAP) legal clinic, his ATM card had been stolen and the entire contents of his account, including the SSI money that he depends on for food and necessities, had been taken. Because

Rollins’ memory is severely impaired, he kept his ATM code on a slip of paper wrapped around his ATM card with a rubber band. He was easy pickings for a thief who took his card, withdrew the maximum, faked a false deposit with an empty envelope, and finally made a second withdrawal of additional funds that Rollins didn’t have. Barry Rollins had the presence of mind to immediately report the card missing at his bank branch. Despite this, and despite clear bank policy protecting depositors in this situation, the bank was unwilling to refund Rollins’ money.

Because he had no permanent address, when he filled out the stolen ATM form at the bank, bank personnel suggested he put the bank’s address as his own return address. When he “failed” to follow up because his own bank branch was holding his mail from the fraud division, his claim to return funds was denied. To add insult to injury, the bank tacked on daily overdraft charges.

His advocates at HAP, Tuan Nguyen and volunteer attorney Richard Zitrin, worked diligently with Rollins, first to unravel the by-then complicated situation, and second, to fix things. But it wasn’t easy. For many people who have had bank funds stolen by fraud, banks respond simply by refunding the stolen money. In the case of this homeless man, the bank’s attitude was vastly different.

“There was no question that Rollins had been wronged, but the bank’s response was a bureaucratic Catch-22 about following up on forms he’d never received, and an attitude of ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ In fact, that’s exactly what the bank’s operations manager told me,” said Zitrin. “It took everything I had not to yell at him right then. But that wouldn’t have gotten Barry his money.”

The bank’s actions were consistent with this attitude as it attempted to use Rollins’ next SSI check to pay itself back for overdrafts caused by the thief. Zitrin reports that once he went over the operations manager’s head to general counsel, he and Nguyen were able to get the overdraft charges reversed fairly quickly. But “despite our intervention, clear documentation, and our contacts in the bank’s general counsel’s office, it took 50 to 60 hours of our time in order to get the bank to pay Barry back,” Zitrin noted.

But they succeeded and explained to Rollins a way he could remember to find his ATM code without keeping it with his ATM card. The complicated milieu of homelessness in San Francisco continues to be daunting for clients and advocates alike. Without the help of the Volunteer Legal Services Program and the Homeless Advocacy Project, it is likely that Barry Rollins would have never received the money due to him.

Each success of this program is an example of the need for this advocacy work. But in a larger sense, the VLSP and HAP programs hope that the community will become educated about people like Barry Rollins, who want just what we all want – to live in peaceful harmony with their surroundings. Justice breeds justice, compassion breeds compassion, and solving this client’s problem may help the next prospective client to be treated just a little bit more humanely by the next bank, vendor, creditor, or landlord. If not, VLSP and HAP stand at the ready to step in.

* Name has been changed.

Learn about the Homeless Advocacy Project.