John Freeman Gill
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MARKING TIME, MAKING DO
Marking Time

When a biting winter storm descended on the Coney Island Boardwalk one afternoon last month, whipping sand and trash into the air, a flock of seagulls lost no time in taking wing. But Patrick Garbiras, a gaunt, shambling, 51-year-old homeless man, could only do what he has been doing ever since filing his claim for Social Security disability benefits 440 days earlier: seek shelter in slow motion.

If Mr. Garbiras were capable of scurrying, he probably would have done so. But a seizure disorder and three operations over the past 14 months, including an open-heart surgery, have left him feeble.

Since becoming homeless in late 2005, Mr. Garbiras has often spent his nights on the subway, alternating between the Q and F trains because, he says ruefully, "variety is the spice of life." But as the gray sky thickened with snow and the wind-chill temperature plunged into the single digits, he could not bear the thought of again sleeping on the train, where a man recently slashed his forearm with a razor while trying to steal his coat.

Instead, Mr. Garbiras shuffled toward the Sea Gate neighborhood. On a ragged block there, he said, a friend with a basement apartment sometimes lets him sleep on a cot for $10 a night.

"After all this — living on the streets — I feel like less than a human being," Mr. Garbiras murmured as he leaned into a raw wind that swept down Neptune Avenue and cut straight through his purple winter jacket.

But as he struggled, it was not the elements Mr. Garbiras cursed. It was the Social Security Administration.

"All my life I worked and paid into Social Security, thinking, 'At least I'll have this to fall back on if I get hurt or when I retire,' " he said. But now he feels betrayed. "I don't want a free ride," he said, "just what's due me."

John Shallman, a regional spokesman for Social Security, said the agency does not comment on individual matters. But while in Mr. Garbiras's case, poorly updated agency records and his homelessness have complicated the process, the biggest obstacle is the 503 days it takes, on average, for hearings of disability appeals to be conducted in Brooklyn — 37 days more than the national average.

But whatever the reasons and whatever the medical merits of his claim, Mr. Garbiras's life these days is one long wait, a stretch of squalid monotony punctuated by scrounging for handouts, fishing cigarette butts from the curb, wandering the Coney Island streets and weathering the occasional health scare, like the blood clot he suffered last September.

Scars and Seizures

After stopping at a deli to buy four 24-ounce cans of Coors beer with four crumpled dollar bills he had panhandled earlier, Mr. Garbiras ambled into Sea Gate and into the teeth of the storm, which was whipping fiercely off the Atlantic Ocean. But when he reached the apartment of his friend, Tommy Montebianco, Mr. Montebianco was not home.

"I have to find somewhere to hide," Mr. Garbiras said, frightened. As he stalked frantically up and down the street, however, he soon spotted Mr. Montebianco, a rotund man, coming down the street gnawing on a chicken leg.

Mr. Montebianco let Mr. Garbiras into his messy apartment, a temporary shelter for both men because, Mr. Montebianco allowed, he had not paid rent in several months.

Once inside, Mr. Garbiras popped open a Coors and took off his coat, revealing a gray sleeveless shirt and a thin torso.

Lifting his shirt, Mr. Garbiras showed on his chest a tattoo of a Chinese character meaning "serenity" along with the tattooed word Gina, the name of a woman whom Mr. Garbiras said he dated in California, and with whom he longs to reunite. After gulping down some anti-seizure medication, he also showed off a vertical chest scar, acquired in February 2006, when a surgeon repaired an aortic aneurysm and fitted him with an artificial aortic valve.

"Gina doesn't even know I had the open-heart surgery," Mr. Garbiras said. "As soon as I get my check, I'm going to do everything I can to get her back."

The scar is just one sign of the unusual run of bad luck that Mr. Garbiras has endured over the past two years.

In 2005, while living at his brother Richie's apartment on Coney Island Avenue, he was twice stricken with grand mal seizures. When he suffered the second one in November, he began foaming at the mouth and woke up three days later in Coney Island Hospital.

That October, his chest had begun hurting him while he was watching television, and he was diagnosed with severe aortic stenosis, a major constriction of the aortic valve, which led to the open-heart surgery.

Hospital records also noted that Mr. Garbiras suffered from hepatitis C and had a history of heroin and alcohol abuse but had begun a methadone program to treat his heroin addiction.

Toward the end of the year, Mr. Garbiras also found himself living on the streets after his brother lost the apartment they were sharing. When Patrick Garbiras applied for Social Security disability benefits on Dec. 19, the interviewer noted on his application that "he had difficulty breathing and he was coughing a lot."

Over the next several weeks, as Mr. Garbiras's chest pains worsened and the heart surgery drew closer, his disability application moved through Social Security's review process.

Social Security records show that Mr. Garbiras worked and paid federal taxes all but three years between 1973 and 2004, and that if deemed disabled he would be eligible for monthly payments of $1,247. His jobs included a decade as manager of a pornographic video production company and more recent stints as a moving company laborer.

The handling of Mr. Garbiras's disability application was partly hampered by his homelessness, as some letters that were sent to a friend's apartment, which Mr. Garbiras had listed as his mailing address, went unanswered.

Still, Social Security records show that the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which reviewed Mr. Garbiras's claim for the federal agency, had obtained reports from Coney Island Hospital that noted his heart condition was confirmed by cardiac catheterization on Jan. 18, and that his treatment was ongoing. On Feb. 17, 2006, however, the day after Mr. Garbiras's open-heart surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, the federal agency denied his claim, citing insufficient medical evidence.

With that denial, Mr. Garbiras joined the ranks of the 1.6 million Americans — 65 percent of all applicants — whose claims for Social Security or Supplemental Security Income disability benefits were rejected last year.

His only recourse was to request a hearing to appeal the decision, which he did last April, midway through his three-month recuperation at Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island. That is when Mr. Garbiras, who fears he will die before he ever sees a Social Security check, began to mark time in earnest.

Methadone and Mermaid Avenue

For Mr. Garbiras, the city's streets have been his waiting room. Most days he pinballs in slow motion among a handful of dreary locales. After panhandling enough money for an egg sandwich at the Stillwell Avenue subway station, he takes the Q train to a medical clinic on Coney Island Avenue for his daily bubblegum-colored dose of methadone. He has been clean of heroin for more than a year and has been steadily lowering his dosage of methadone, according to his counselor at the clinic, who asked not to be named.

Mr. Garbiras typically spends the rest of his day making the rounds of Coney Island between the Fellowship Baptist Church on West 20th Street, where he obsessively checks his mail for news from Social Security; two delis on Mermaid Avenue, where he stocks up on Coors; and the rank public bathroom on the Boardwalk near the Parachute Jump, where he huddles for warmth on frigid days. Occasionally he earns a few dollars doing odd jobs, like sweeping up around game stalls.

For much of the past year, Mr. Garbiras also regularly visited the local Social Security office, seeking news. Then in January, he enlisted the help of Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents Coney Island. After two inquiries from Mr. Nadler's office, Mr. Garbiras got a letter from Social Security that had been mailed to the church address he had provided to the congressman. The letter, from Thomasina Holmes, a group supervisor in the agency's Brooklyn hearing office, urged Mr. Garbiras to call her.

When he did so, Ms. Holmes said her office had been unable to reach him, and in fact Social Security records show that mail sent to Mr. Garbiras's friend's address last summer was returned. But as other agency records demonstrate, Mr. Garbiras had sent an updated mailing address to the agency months earlier.

Regardless of the confusion, Mr. Garbiras's case appeared to be moving more quickly than most. "We were almost two years behind with requests for hearings," Ms. Holmes acknowledged. "We're catching up." The agency reports a drop to 503 days from 547 days in the average wait for a hearing in Brooklyn in the last two years.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Garbiras became dizzy and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where tests revealed a small cyst on his brain, which doctors will continue to monitor. But he has also received some attention of late from Social Security, which summoned him to Downtown Brooklyn on Friday for a physical examination.

There was another recent letter from the agency. It advised Mr. Garbiras of his right to a representative at his hearing and said that if he intended to use one, he must fill out an enclosed form. No form was enclosed.





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