The Trump-owned apartment building that Thomas Gutowski has lived in for the past nine years casts his circumstances in a deceptively prosperous light. “Tommy, you got to be careful,” he said, repeating words often said to him by friends. “People think you have money.”
Mr. Gutowski’s story is not one of rags to riches; instead, it is the opposite. “I went from wearing a tux to not even having socks,” he said, citing substance abuse as the culprit.
A few years after becoming sober, Mr. Gutowski, 65, secured his current residence via a lottery. His building on Riverside Drive is part of an 80/20 housing program, in which 80 percent of the apartments in a building are rented at market-rate prices, while the remaining units are rented at affordable rates to lower-income tenants. His monthly rent is $915.
In the 1980s, Mr. Gutowski, a musician, came to New York City to forge a career in arts management. Through what he called a “series of bad decisions,” he found himself out of a job, friendless and, at times, living on the street. For most of this period, he found work waiting tables at greasy spoons in order to afford the money for drugs and shelter in cockroach-infested quarters.
He said that you reach a point where “there is just no joy in the high,” he said. “But you can’t stop because not doing it is worse than not being happy. The ‘not having it’ is more frightening than the fact that it’s not fun anymore.”
Mr. Gutowski said he found the fortitude to climb out of the addiction pit 13 years ago. Little by little, finding strength through spirituality, he began to rebuild his life, though it was a challenge for a man over 50.
“I caused my problems, and I solved them,” he said.
Experience in the service industry helped him to find work as a waiter at various restaurants. Luck of the draw helped him land his apartment. But friendships were harder to cultivate.
“People with your age and your interests have had a life,” he said. “They have friends and they have an income and they can go to the opera and they can go to dinner. I couldn’t do any of those things, and I couldn’t get into a situation where you meet people.”
That changed last year, when he began to take part in programs offered by Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T. Elders, known as SAGE, which works with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender older adults.
“For the first time in 15 years, through that organization, I’ve made friends,” Mr. Gutowski said.
His good fortune was followed by medical and monetary setbacks. Last spring, he began exhibiting symptoms of what doctors diagnosed as hepatitis C, and he had to quit his waiter’s job.
His finances took another hit. Mr. Gutowski receives $200 a month in food stamps. In September, he began to receive a pension of $72 a month from a job he held in the 1980s, and the Social Security benefits he began receiving at age 63 increased to $1,236.70.
But during the summer, Mr. Gutowski learned that because of the extra money he had earned as a waiter, he had more income than was allowed by Social Security rules. Once the error was discovered, the Social Security Administration demanded money back; it withheld two checks, for July and August. Eviction was now a very real concern.
SAGE came to his assistance, referring Mr. Gutowski to the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, one of the agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
A $1,115.74 grant from the fund allowed Mr. Gutowski to pay his July rent and late fees. He also received a grant from the Bridge Fund of New York, an agency that works to prevent homelessness, to pay his balance for August.
Mr. Gutowski says that his finances have since stabilized, but that a new sense of dread has replaced the old one. This month, he will begin treatment for his illness, largely paid for by his health maintenance organization. It is set to last 6 to 10 months, requiring him to take three pills a day and give himself an injection once a week.
“The side effects are like chemotherapy,” he said, but added that people at SAGE had set up a schedule of visitors to check on him regularly in the home he has managed to preserve. Mr. Gutowski says he is prepared to fight for it again if need be, as he has in the past.
“There were times I gave up almost everything but rent to live here,” he said. “It is such an opportunity, at my age, to be living somewhere safe, and very clean. I would do almost anything.”
By JOHN OTIS Published: January 5, 2013
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