Geraldo Rivera: The Return of the Poverty Pimps

Back in my South Bronx/East Harlem days, the Young Lords called them poverty pimps; the hustlers that cashed in on the War on Poverty. Those ghetto entrepreneurs did it by creating community-based programs, publicly funded, but designed mainly to benefit the creators rather than the community. That crowd makes ACORN and similar contemporary groups look saintly by comparison. Many indictments later, the community organizations are better regulated than they were back in the 1960s; besides the big money is no longer in poverty. Now the bad asses are called, “Medicaid-moguls,” and it turns out I know some of them personally; worse, they made their ill-gotten fortunes from a movement I helped create.

Having heaped scorn and ridicule on the poverty pimps, imagine my dismay when they got reamed in a righteous expose in The New York Times.

“Reaping Millions in Nonprofit Care for Disabled,” went the headline in Tuesday’s front-page article excoriating brothers Philip and Joel Levy, former executive directors of the Young Adult Institute. YAI is a huge provider of group homes and other vital services for the developmentally disabled, the folks we used to call mentally retarded.

While pointing out the various good deeds done over the years by the Levy’s and YAI, the fine article by Russ Buettner shredded the brothers by describing their tax-payer funded, million-dollar salaries, luxury cars, far-flung vacation homes, and totally inappropriate perks, like over $50 grand to buy one of their daughters an apartment when she attended NYU. It is the kind of gross excess that gave birth to the Tea Party, and it is certain to fuel further rage at Medicaid waste, fraud and abuse.

Here is where it gets personal.

The movement that allowed the Levy brothers to cash in was born following my original 1972 expose of the deplorable conditions inside Willowbrook and similar institutions. With a peak of about 6,500 residents, Willowbrook on New York City’s Staten Island was the world’s largest and the nation’s worst institution for mental disability. As cited in the NYT piece, I got my cameras inside the wretched place and revealed naked residents, feces-smeared, often abused, neglected or unattended. Walking into that place was like walking into hell for the helpless.

As I said on “Eyewitness News” in January 1972:

“This is what it looked like. This is what it sounded like. But how can I tell you about the way it smelled? It smelled of filth. It smelled of disease. And it smelled of death.”

Fueled by community outrage following the broadcast of those horrifying images, a movement was born to de-institutionalize the care of the mentally disabled. That summer my friends John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Sha Na Na, and later John Denver, Charlie Daniels, and the Allman Brothers did benefit concerts to begin funding the creation of small, community-based residences where the developmentally disabled could be cared for on a one-to-one basis.

Since the dark days, a far-flung network of group homes has been created throughout New York State and around the nation. Indeed, the institutional model has by now been abandoned in most civilized countries. There are many hundreds of homes in New York and across America; I’m proud to say two bear my name. The group homes are not perfect, but they are vastly superior to and in honestly run agencies, far less expensive than the grim institutions they replaced. Most importantly, their residents are treated humanely, on an individual basis that takes into account their specific strengths, and works to maximize their potential, rather than treating them worse than stray dogs in a bad kennel.

Despite many challenges, most urgently the need for many more of them, group homes offering community-based services are an affordable, workable solution to the huge challenge of caring for the neediest among us. But then you get exploiters like the Levy brothers that embarrass a whole movement.

Because their agency had a big government feel to it, I’ve only had limited contact with the Levy brothers over the decades, preferring the smaller organizations that had less of the Medicaid-mill feel to them. I’ve participated in YAI’s annual “Central Park fun, walk and run” fundraiser, and reminisced about the bad old days in a (free) speech at their well-attended 2010 convention in the Hilton Hotel.

Now comes the Times’ expose of the Levy’s garish life-style at tax-payers expense, and I’m worried that the entire movement will be smeared by the broad brush of “entitlement reform.” By all means, scour the budgets and records of all these partially tax-payer funded groups. But know for certain, that most of them don’t exist to enrich Medicaid-moguls, but to bring light and life to a population that for too long lived out of sight, out of mind in the dark, dirty corners of Willowbrook.

Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.