Preying on the Poor

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/13/2003

On a gritty block lined with timeworn storefronts, the big bright sign in the freshly scrubbed window looms like a beacon to the neighborhood's poor. In bold letters, it reads: "Instant Money."

Mary Williams drops into the newly opened H & R Block branch on Uphams Corner and emerges with what she sees as a good deal. Rather than file her federal tax return herself, and wait perhaps two months to claim her tax credit, the 21-year-old mother will return to the Dorchester branch in three days and pick up a check - minus a fee of $200 or more.

"Christmas broke me," said Williams, after leaving the branch on a recent night. "I need the money - I've got bills, kids, and life to take care of now."

One of about 40,000 Bostonians who will benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit - the landmark federal effort to pump extra money into low-income working households - Williams is among a quarter of those city residents who will give tax firms like H & R Block a significant portion of their often desperately needed refunds.

With scores of such firms now opening branches in the city's poorest neighborhoods, many of them similarly advertising instant cash - really loans with interest rates often exceeding 100 percent, if the money were borrowed for a full year - city officials are joining a national campaign this week to persuade residents this tax season to shun what they consider "usurious" business practices that unfairly target the poor.

After all, the average recipient gets about a $1,500 refund, and giving up $200 or more defeats the purpose of a program both Republicans and Democrats have long touted as one of the most effective ways to help the poor.

"The purpose of this tax credit is to lift poor people from poverty, not to line the pockets of tax firms," said Mimi Turchinetz, the city's living-wage administrator, who is hoping to steer residents to 16 sites around Boston providing free tax help. "Given what these firms charge and how they lure people, it's easy to argue they're preying on the poor."

Although studies show
tax firms open more than half their offices in the nation's poorest neighborhoods - in 2000, according to a zip code count, a third of all those in Boston were in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan - officials at firms such as H & R Block insist they're not targeting the poor. "A lot of the criticism is unfair. What we do is give our clients options," said Denise Sposato, a spokeswoman for H & R Block.

First, she said, the firm's employees tell clients they can file their taxes electronically, and, if they have bank accounts, they can have their refunds automatically deposited within 14 days. If they don't have a bank account - and many don't - she said the tax preparers explain it may take as long as eight weeks to get a check in the mail.

Only after that, she said, do they raise the controversial option of a "refund anticipation loan." Depending on the size of their refund and their credit history, H & R Block will advance clients like Williams the money, subtracting a fee of about $100, or more in the case of larger refunds. That's on top of the usual tax preparation fee, which varies but often runs more than $100.

"For many of our clients, this is really just a convenience for them," Sposato said of the fee for the refund, comparing the trade off to someone who decides they would rather pay a high ATM fee than go without cash. "There are needs they have that may make the loan a smart choice for them."

But the loans have the effect of diverting billions of dollars from the poor to tax firms, said tax analyst Alan Berube of The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, who argues that the government bears some of the responsibility for the expenses because of the complexity of tax forms.

Last year, Berube published a study that found in 2001 H & R Block and other major tax firms earned $357 million alone by selling rapid refunds to earned-income tax recipients, more than double what they earned in 1998. In all, the study found, 7 cents of every dollar of such aid to the poor went to tax firms.

Part of the problem, he and others said, is the tax forms are so complicated many people would rather have a specialist do the work for them. Also, unless people file electronically, it can take a long time for refund checks to arrive from the government. One other problem: Nearly a quarter of those eligible for the tax credit - working families who earn $34,000 or less - either don't know about it or don't apply for it.

"So without a more effective system, tax firms can take advantage of a situation where people need cash and aren't aware of their options," said Berube, adding that in some parts of Dorchester and Roxbury a third of the working-poor residents seek rapid loans. "After a while, what happens is this becomes an annual cycle. At the beginning of the year, people look forward to getting a quick lump sum."

Though they know they would get back more money by filing electronically, Chuck and Trina White said they aren't eager to wait the eight weeks it might take by filing on their own. Like others, they prefer not to risk having their tax refund check stolen or lost in the mail.

Leaving the H & R Block on Uphams Corner after filing their taxes recently, the two said they're not happy to have forked over about $250 to the tax firm. But they insisted it was their best option.

"You get your check and it's in your hand," said Chuck White, 28, who described himself as a consultant. "That's peace of mind worth paying for."

David Abel can be reached at

Copyright, The Boston Globe

March of Gentrification

By David Abel  | Globe Staff  |  January 20, 2008

A block from the Pine Street Inn, near the 3-month-old yoga studio, the year-old Asian furniture boutique, and all the recently finished condo complexes, Ali R. Yagcioglu has jazzed up his taqueria with arty splashes of paint and has raised prices - not to squeeze the yuppies flooding the neighborhood, but to keep out those who stay at the homeless shelter.
Across town, developers of a new boutique hotel have encouraged the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans next door to rebrand itself a "center," even offering to pay for a new sign.
Near the old Combat Zone, where condos now sell for seven figures, the homeless at St. Francis House watch television in a new waiting area built with money from their neighbor, the Ritz-Carlton; the addition helps keep them from loitering outside.
As gentrification spreads to nearly every corner of Boston, the city's largest homeless shelters, once outposts in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, have found themselves surrounded by pricey condos, luxury hotels, and ritzy restaurants.
The encircling development has created a clash of cultures and complicated relationships, as the rich butt up against the poor, business owners try to scrub out the malcontents, and patrons question whether to venture into uncharted territory.
"The new environment will be a continuing challenge that requires a great deal of faith, a willingness to listen, and avoiding jumping to stereotypes, on all sides," said Lyndia Downie, president of the Pine Street Inn.
Among the challenges of her changing neighborhood, Downie has been forced to debunk rumors that the shelter is on the cusp of closing. Four years ago, she said, the shelter signed a 99-year lease with the city.
"It's a persistent rumor spread by people selling real estate," she said. "It's false. We're not leaving."
In just the past year, the area around the Pine Street Inn, for decades a bleak neighborhood strewn with discarded needles, empty liquor bottles, and roaming addicts, has changed dramatically.
On most days, more than 400 men and women come and go from the shelter, but now they often cross paths on the once-desolate streets with a growing number of new residents emerging from Mercedes and Audis, artists and professionals who work and live in the newly built lofts, and a stream of well-off customers of new furniture stores such as Devi Home and diseno|bos or chichi restaurants including Rocca, Gaslight, and Myers + Chang.
Since opening the O2 Yoga studio a block from the shelter in October, Heather Stewart said she has managed to attract about 100 regular clients.
But it has been a challenge to persuade many of her female clients to attend evening classes, especially those from elsewhere in the city, who know the area by its less gentrified reputation.
"I've heard people say, `I don't want to go out to my car late at night. I don't want to go there,"' Stewart said.
On the same block at El Triunfo, the newly renovated taqueria now doubling the size of its dining area, Yagcioglu, who bought the place nine months ago, pointed to a crack in the restaurant's glass door, which he said was evidence of a fight between two drunken homeless men. He decided to raise his prices, because he thinks that will discourage many of the homeless from returning.
"I don't want them here," he said.
He plans to add more seafood to the menu as part of his effort to lure the new residents and those who work at the new dry cleaner, frame shop, art gallery, and luxury furniture store, all now on the same block of East Berkeley Street. "Over the past nine months, I'd say we have reduced the number of homeless customers to 5 percent," Yagcioglu said. "It used to be about 20 percent."
To entice people to buy the pricey real estate in the area - a four-bedroom condo recently sold for $3.9 million - Bill Kasper, owner of Urban Property Management, which has dozens of properties in the South End, said his agents promote their buildings' security - video cameras, lighting, and efforts to ensure entrances are always locked.
"We're very proactive about security," he said, though he noted that this month someone broke into four cars in a garage of a new condo complex on Fay Street. "We tell people, `You just have to use common sense, be aware of your surroundings."
Since 2000, there have been 1,720 new units of housing built in the South End, many of them in more than 10 new residential buildings around the Pine Street Inn, said Sheila Dillon, deputy director of housing at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Before Hanzi Khalsa opened Devi Home a year ago in a space that had been abandoned for four years, she said her landlord told her she was taking a big risk. When she asked whether it was unwise for two women to run a store there, she said he responded: "I wouldn't let my fiancee do it."
They have since had one theft and had to ask some drunken men to leave the store. "We were nervous in the beginning, but it feels safe now."
When Jason Kelly and his wife paid $440,000 for their 900-square foot condo on Fay Street in 2004 - before it had been built - they knew what they were getting into. But now with a 3-year-old son, there are some things they haven't been able to accept.
"It does sort of wear on you, seeing all the homeless people every day, to be honest," said Kelly, 35, an accountant from Ohio whose nanny has been propositioned for sex. "You see people urinating on the street, more than any other places."
But they're not moving. "Overall, it's not as troublesome as most people would think," he said.
While larcenies last year climbed 5 percent in the D-4 police district, which includes the area around the Pine Street Inn, the overall crime rate dropped by 3 percent from 2006. In the blocks from Albany to Tremont streets, police last year recorded 106 violent crimes, about the same as two years before, and 404 property crimes, nearly 20 percent less than 2005.
As he has watched the area change, Captain William B. Evans, the police officer in charge of crime prevention in the South End, said he has been impressed by how quiet things have been. He has received few complaints from new residents.
"It's really sort of surprising," Evans said. "I think the more people out visiting the restaurants and the galleries is indirectly creating a safer neighborhood. The homeless haven't been scaring people away."
In interviews outside shelters around the city, the homeless said they had mixed feelings about the encroaching gentrification.
As work continued on the multimillion-dollar transformation of the century-old, long-vacant Ames Building into an ornate 120-room hotel on Court Street, Kevin Scribner, 40, stood in front of the building next door, the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, his home for the past year.
He said he wouldn't mind if the hotel, slated to open next year, offers the homeless jobs in food service or security and helps the shelter raise money.
But he and others worried that the shelter's plan to change its name by dropping the word "shelter" and adding "center" reflects pressure from the hotel. "You can change the name, but you can't hide that this is a homeless shelter with 300 guys," Scribner said.
Outside the Saint Francis House, now surrounded by a newly expanded Emerson College, the renovated China Trade Center, the luxury Archstone Apartments, and the looming Ritz, where a presidential suite is available for $5,500 a night, Jay Tankanow, 49, said he feels hemmed in by the new buildings and mistreated by those who look after them.
"They think we shouldn't be here," he said. "They don't even let us stand on the sidewalk. I can't be here for 15 minutes without getting pushed away."
Drinking coffee at a year-old sandwich shop across the Street from the Pine Street Inn on Harrison Avenue, Eric Pierce, 63, and Earl Farnsley, 66, said they are allowed to sit at the shop and not be bothered.
"It's nice to be treated with respect and be allowed to sit down and have a cup of coffee," Pierce said. "The problem is when we're down the street, and we sit on someone's steps, and they tell us to go away."
At the table next to them, Janet Bartlett Goodman, 52, an artist who works nearby, remembered how a decade ago she used to find the homeless passed out on top of her car, how it felt like she was risking her life walking a few blocks in the neighborhood.
Pointing to a Mercedes parked in front of the shop, she said: "Now, there's nowhere to park."
But she said there feels like a balance emerging.
"It would be unfair to drive the homeless out," she said. "We need to get along, and it seems like that's happening."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Yours, For a Price

By David Abel
Globe Staff

No credit? No checks or savings? No cash for delivery?

No problem at Rent-a-Center.

If you're like Juanda Mwanza, and you want to furnish your home with anything from wide-screen high-definition TVs to plush, if used, sofas, all you need are a few dollars to cover weekly or monthly payments. If the money runs out, the goods go back to the store. No obligations, no credit problems.

"It's the best way out there for me to buy," said Mwanza, 38, a software engineer from Dorchester who spent time on a recent morning at the Uphams Corner Rent-a-Center, eyeing a Whirlpool washer and dryer set for $8.99 a week.

But what seems like a good deal to Mwanza strikes others, particularly consumer advocates, as extortion. Rent-to-own businesses like Rent-a-Center, they say, prey on the poor, millions of whom end up paying as much as three times a product's typical retail price in exchange for a low, commitment-free weekly or monthly fee.

Now, with the economy struggling, rent-to-own businesses are booming - and they're seeking to protect their multibillion-dollar gains. As consumer advocates bring pressure on Congress to regulate the rental business, the industry has put forth its own legislation that is expected to be considered in the next few weeks.

The nation's 8,300 rent-to-own stores, which last year took in more than $5 billion, already have a head start: In a mainly partisan vote last September, the Republican-controlled House passed their bill. The Senate never voted on it.

The industry also is seeking to expand its traditional base of customers, most of whom live in households with incomes below $25,000, according to a survey by the Federal Trade Commission. With debt and unemployment squeezing the middle class, rent-to-own businesses are increasingly targeting clients with more upscale tastes, prominently featuring everything from the latest brand-name DVD players to desktop computers.

"This started off as a mom-and-pop industry, and now we're a presence on Wall Street," said Richard May, a spokesman for the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations, the industry's trade group. "The ultimate point of our efforts now is to legitimize the rent-to-own industry, to broaden our demographics, and to give our stores more security [against litigation]."

The bill before Congress, which would supercede state laws now regulating the industry, requires all transactions to clearly disclose the ultimate price of the product, explain buy-out procedures, list whether the item is new or used, and, among other things, provide clear rules about the rights of customers who default on their payments.

The problem with the bill, consumer advocates argue, is that it doesn't treat rent-to-own transactions as credit sales, which are governed by federal and state laws. Courts in states including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Jersey have ruled that rent-to-own transactions are credit sales, and Vermont now requires all the industry's stores to disclose effective interest rates.

"Their entire marketing strategy is to sell the poor the notion of ownership, yet the industry wants to be treated under the rental laws," said Edmund Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, noting government studies show 70 percent of customers end up buying what they rent. "The customers think this is the best deal they can qualify for. But it isn't. They're not getting the cost of the finance charge, or the cost of buying over time."

Without a credit card or enough savings to pay in full, many customers see rent-to-own as their most convenient, affordable way to make purchases. In one of its brochures, the National Consumer Law Center describes a typical transaction: A customer is told that for just $16 a week, over a year, they can become the owner of a 19-inch TV. What they're not told is that, in the end, they're paying $832 for a TV that usually sells for about $300 - at an annual interest rate of 254 percent.

"What it comes down to is that this is undoubtedly a predatory industry, taking advantage of people who perceive they have few choices and they're charging them the maximum," said Margot Saunders, managing attorney of the National Consumer Law Center's Washington office. "A legitimate bill would include limits on price and protections from usury."

The controversial nature of the business was too much for John Madden. The popular football commentator, who for the past few years has served as a very visible spokesman for Rent-a-Center, decided this month he no longer wants to be affiliated with the company, ending his commercial appearances.

"We just didn't want to be involved in too much controversy," said Sandy Montag, Madden's agent. "Whether we agree with Rent-a-Center or not, if there are issues, you don't want to endorse it."

It wasn't because of its finances. In the past five years, Rent-a-Center, which dominates the industry with 2,500 stores, has seen it stock soar, its annual sales more than double to $2 billion, and its net income balloon from $25 million to more than $172 million last year.

The booming business also has produced an increase in customer complaints. Rent-to-own customers have long complained about everything from hidden fees to having their merchandise forcefully, and abruptly, repossessed.

Last year in Massachusetts, which now has 50 Rent-a-Center stores, 19 customers complained to the state attorney general's office. Two years before, when there were 37 stores, only three people complained.

But 3 million people patronize rent-to-own businesses annually. About 75 percent of the industry's customers say they're satisfied with their transactions, according to the Federal Trade Commission's 2000 survey.

Moreover, some academics argue that even if rent-to-own stores charge exorbitant fees, their success demonstrates they're filling a need in society.

Too much regulation of the industry would be counterproductive, two University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth professors argued in a paper published two years ago. It would "deny or limit immediate access to goods that are the basics of (the) modern household," Michael Anderson and Raymond Jackson wrote.

Mwanza, one of about 250 customers at the recently opened Rent-a-Center in Uphams Corner, values the convenience. If she gets something and doesn't like it, or it breaks, she can return it or have it replaced. She doesn't lose anything.

Now, for $600 a month, she gets two big-screen TVs, two reclining chairs, a bedroom set, and a dinette set. Though she knows she would pay less if she bought the items at another store, she thinks renting to own is a good deal. And soon, after she gets her tax refund, she plans to start renting the washer and dryer, which will cost more than $800 when she finishes paying.

"I trust the people here," she said. "They treat you right."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Swindling Immigrants

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/05/2003

After paying the "law office" of Price-Price & Associates $1,200, Jaime Cardona expected help navigating the bureaucratic path to citizenship. Instead, he says, the firm improperly filed his application for asylum, then it vanished, and next week immigration officials expect the 41-year-old father of three to return to Guatemala, leaving his wife and children in Allston.

"They lied to me, they stole my money, and now a judge told me I have to leave," said Cardona, a factory worker who has lived in Boston since 1993. Cardona was advised that he could qualify for permanent residency under a special asylum act for Guatemalans, though he arrived in the United States three years too late.

A year and a half ago,
Cardona learned that Price-Price wasn't qualified to provide the services they sold him. In fact, he says, they weren't even lawyers; they were notary publics, or "notarios," a title with a significantly different meaning in the United States than in Latin America. Though their powers are limited to stamping legal documents and almost anyone can be a notary in the United States - all you need in Massachusetts is $65, the rubberstamp approval of the secretary of state, and four signatures - in much of Latin America, the word "notario" connotes a lawyer, usually one of distinction.

With the region's Latino population growing, state authorities are increasingly receiving complaints about notaries using the semantic confusion to swindle immigrants, many of them poor, undocumented, and speaking no English. Worse than the theft, state officials and immigrant-rights advocates say, are the cases like Cardona's that have been botched beyond repair.

It's unclear how many of the state's 130,000 notaries have engaged in such deception. But state officials and immigration-rights advocates say they've received scores of complaints since Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's office publicized last month the prosecution of Gaspard J. Francois, a 54-year-old East Boston resident sentenced to three years in jail for posing as an immigration lawyer and for defrauding at least five Costa Rican immigrants out of thousands of dollars.

"This seems to be a very significant problem," said John Grossman, chief of corruption, fraud, and computer crime at the attorney general's office, who is investigating suspicious notaries. "It happens too often for us to prosecute all these cases. But in cases with larceny and fraud, where victims will step forward - and many are reluctant because they aren't here legally - we will prosecute."

To prevent more cases like Cardona's, some advocates want the state to regulate notaries more closely.

Immigration lawyer Jeff Ross, who met Cardona after he learned that a judge ordered him to leave the country, has sent Governor Mitt Romney a draft of potential legislation that is similar to laws in 16 states. The proposed bill would forbid notaries who act as immigration consultants from advertising themselves as "notarios," strictly regulate what notaries can charge for their services, and create a licensing process for notaries interested in serving immigrants.

"It's like the way we regulate the insurance industry," said Ross, who is legal counsel for the Guatemalan Association of Massachusetts. "We need a law to hold people accountable when they're acting beyond the bounds of what they're legally allowed to do."

Doroteo Segura says a notary in Dorchester charged him $300 for helping him fill out a petition for permanent residency. Nothing ever came of his petition, and when the 32-year-old Guatemalan asked for a receipt to confirm that the notary filed the visa request, she brushed him off, he said.

"After about a year of not hearing anything, I asked her about my case and she said she had no idea what happened to my petition," said Segura, whose wife is a citizen.

The notary, Yolanda Reyes, keeps an office in the living room of her home on Callender Street, where a small, fading sign next to the front door advertises her company, Wide National Service. Inside, beyond a lobby that looks like a dentist's office, Reyes sits at an old desk, the walls behind her decorated with a collage of diplomas, American flags, and sample immigration forms.

When asked about the services she provides, she was reluctant to respond. "We don't just put a seal on a piece of paper; there's much more to it," she said. When asked to respond to allegations that she has improperly handled cases or charged exorbitant fees, she told a reporter to leave. "This is my life - and it's private," she said.

Recently, several of the state's immigrant-rights groups have started collecting complaints about notaries posing as lawyers, forwarding many of them to the attorney general's office. One group in Cambridge, Centro Presente, provided the names of a dozen suspicious notaries, from East Boston to Framingham.

"This is a widespread problem that will continue as long as there are undocumented people and those greedy to make a buck," said Elena Letona, executive director of Centro Presente.

One of the notaries Centro Presente has received complaints about, Letona said, has an office in the same space occupied by Price-Price & Associates, which vanished about two years ago. Over a pawnshop on East Boston's Meridian Street, where a picture of the Statue of Liberty accompanies advertising for services ranging from notarizing to filling out immigration paperwork, Servicios Pro fesionales Reyes welcomes a steady flow of immigrants, many of them former Price-Price clients.

The owner, Daisy Reyes (no relation to the Dorchester notary), insists that she has never misrepresented herself as a lawyer. What she does, she says, is help people with translations, taxes, and simple immigration forms. If a lawyer is necessary, she says, she recommends that her clients find one.

"Some notary publics lie to their clients," she said, arguing that Centro Presente has unfairly lumped her with those who break the law. "We don't do complicated cases, and that's why I continue to have many clients after 15 years in business. A new law, I think, would prevent abuse."

For Jaime Cardona, and an unknown number of immigrants like him, nothing can undo the mishandling of his case. He will give up his job at a New Balance shoe factory and leave his wife and children.

Despite a bleak future, he hopes to come back. But to do it legally, could take 10 years.

"It shouldn't have happened this way," he said. "There should be a way for me to stay."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Hitchhiking at 97

Cash-Strapped Seniors Scrimp While Holding Valuable Property

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  8/03/2001

Arnold Stephens could sell his Back Bay home and stash a half-million dollars in the bank. Instead, the 97-year-old man eats in soup kitchens and hitchhikes to get around.

Nearly every day, Stephens shuffles out of his Beacon Street brownstone in a rumpled suit, sticks out his thumb, and asks strangers to drive him to the T, the Prudential Center, or one of the churches he frequents for free meals.

With no savings and only about $14,000 a year from his pension and Social Security, Stephens is one of about 2,100 elderly homeowners in Boston - and nearly 24,000 in Massachusetts - who find themselves sitting on property so valuable they need help just to pay the tax.

In 1974, Stephens bought his two-bedroom condominium for $30,000, and since then the real-estate market has boomed. The city now assesses it at $359,000, though realtors say it could fetch far more in today's market.

"People are crazy about what they're willing to pay for a little apartment - just crazy," says Stephens, whose property taxes have risen to nearly $4,000 a year. "But this is my home. You don't leave your home. Besides, this is the center of the universe. Where else would I want to go?"

Stephens may be an extreme case. But Leo Moss, a coordinator of the city program that provides free home repair services for the elderly, says he sees hundreds of older homeowners struggle to pay soaring taxes and rising utility bills.

"A lot of these people would rather die than move," he says. "People get attached to their surroundings. Their homes are part of their lives."

Many of the homeowners Moss helps are like Mable Huggins, a 71-year-old widow living on an income that doesn't cover her mortgage and medical bills. The owner of a seven-bedroom house in Dorchester for the last 22 years, Huggins says her taxes have jumped more than $200 a month in the past few years.

"I'm sick, I'm struggling, but I won't ever move," she says. "Rents are even higher than my mortgage."

To keep people like Huggins and Stephens from being forced out of their homes, the state allows low-income seniors to deduct a portion of their property taxes. In Boston, homeowners over age 70 are eligible if their income falls below $16,350. Stephens has $1,500 of his taxes waived. (State and federal grants cover the city's lost tax revenue.)

Although property values, and taxes, have been rising for a decade, officials say the number of people in Massachusetts seeking deductions has declined by more than 7,000 since 1995, as fewer elderly people live in poverty.

Another state program allows older, low-income homeowners to defer nearly all their property taxes until they sell or die. But few have taken to the program. In Boston, only 10 people have signed up, city officials say.

"It's really a shame," says Ellen Docharty, director of the city's Taxpayer Referral and Assistance Center. "There are a lot of people like Mr. Stephens who would qualify for these programs. They just don't know about it."

Few of them, however, are as land-rich and pocketbook-poor as Stephens. His condo is worth about twice as much as the average home owned by a recipient of the tax waiver.

"Unequivocally, this is a rare case," says Tim Marsh, a broker who publishes Real Estate Insider, a newsletter about market values and trends in Boston. "With the rise in the market, few people hold onto their condos for more than a few years. Mr. Stephens could do very well if he sold."

But he has no plans to move.

He has lived in his brownstone at Beacon and Exeter streets since 1958. When their building was divided into condos in the 1970s, he and his wife bought a four-room unit on the first floor. She died in 1980 and today he shares the home with Janna Bruins, a 68-year-old retired lab technician who has rented a room from Stephens since 1958. Stephens never had children; his only relatives are three nephews.
Inside the condo, the paint is peeling, but he strolls out every day beneath the word "Royal" embroidered on the burgundy awning outside the building. Some of his neighbors are paying down mortgages worth more than a million dollars, but Stephens finished paying his years ago.
Molded by the Depression, the retired Raytheon machinist takes pride in his thrift in the neighborhood of the $9 martini.

"You have to go through the Depression, I think, to understand the meaning of the dollar," he says. "I squeezed the nickel so hard I could make the Indian ride the buffalo on the other side of the coin."

Why would a man his age hitchhike? Stephens laughs: "I don't drive," he says. "A man has to get around. People are nice. They're all my friends."

Over the years, Stephens says, he has grown to enjoy eating at soup kitchens. "Fellas like me don't feel like cooking - and some of us wouldn't eat otherwise," he says. "It's also free."
He calls the Friday-night supper at the Arlington Street Church "The best restaurant in town."
Digging in recently to a meal of soup, chicken salad, potato chips, and chocolate-chip cookies, Stephens swigs a cup of punch and says, "It's just excellent. I don't know what it is, but it is good."

With no plans to convert his valuable asset into a lifetime of restaurant meals, he says he'll keep pinching pennies and going to the soup kitchen. Moving, he says, would be too much trouble. Besides, he adds, there isn't enough affordable housing - and he loves the Back Bay.

Climbing the church steps to head to his home a few blocks from upscale eateries like the Capital Grille and the Armani Cafe, Stephens stops and points to his plastic bag filled with leftovers.

"The food is good, the feelings are good, it's quiet, there's a prayer," he says. "What else could a guy ask for?"

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Cracking Down on Pawnshops

State Seeks to Bring Down Illegally High Interest Rates

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  5/01/2003

FALL RIVER - The switchblade didn't sell, so the welfare recipient took off two gold rings her daughter had given her and pawned them for a $10 loan. When an unemployed carpenter got only $40 for a sack of old coins his great-grandfather collected in World War I, he hocked his diamond wedding band for $30. And after a cash-short telemarketer bounced a check, it was time to bring in his DVD player.

"I wouldn't say this is a good deal, but it helps in a bind," said Chris Nygren, 31, who got a $45 loan for his DVD player and 13 of his favorite movies. Like the others, the loan comes with a stiff interest rate: 10 percent a month.

Though scores of similar transactions occur nearly every day here at New England Pawnbrokers and the city's other pawnshops, state officials say they're illegal and must stop.

The high-interest loans pawnshops charge are nothing new, but after years of ignoring a century-old law requiring the Massachusetts Division of Banks to approve interest rates in every city and town, the state has launched a crackdown.

Adding pressure on the state's pawnshops, Representative John F. Quinn, a Dartmouth Democrat and cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Banks and Banking Committee, recently proposed a bill that would set significant limits on the interest they can charge and raise fines for those violating the law.

"It's egregious what some of these pawnshops are charging some of the most desperate people," said Quinn, who took action after learning that in February, Fall River's City Council voted to permit local pawnbrokers to continue charging 120 percent interest a year - the highest rate of any municipality in the state. Quinn's bill would cap interest rates at 36 percent per year.

In March, officials at the Division of Banks sent a letter to Fall River, telling the mayor and council members that their city's pawnshops would be breaking the law if they continued charging any interest. They can't resume making loans, officials said, until there's a public hearing and the banking commissioner rules on the city's new interest rates, a process that could take months.

The pawnshops' reaction? Ignore the state.

"They're trying to put us out of business," said Paul Wilner, who opened New England Pawnbrokers less than a year ago and says his South Main Street shop has yet to turn a profit. "We have to earn a living."

Wilner, who runs his pawnshop with his wife, justifies their interest rates by comparing their revenue with those in larger cities such as Boston, where similar shops thrive just charging 3 percent a month in interest. The shops in larger cities have more foot traffic. With only 90,000 people in Fall River, compared with seven times that in Boston, he says the higher interest rates are needed to make ends meet.

The couple, who earn most of their money making loans, say they take in about $28,000 in loans a month. However, they say their profit is only about $3,800, roughly a quarter of which comes from their $5 initial loan fees for jewelry. They also make money from selling all the things - televisions, Barbie dolls, guitars, family heirlooms - their customers give up by defaulting on their loans.

After they pay $1,000 a month in rent for their small, cramped shop, and their many other expenses - including police confiscation of stolen items - the Wilners insist their overall take-home isn't much, and anything but usurious. "We're not going to get rich here," said Linda Wilner, adding she often cuts her clients some slack and believes she provides a crucial service to those desperately in need of cash. "We don't have any vacations planned to Hawaii."

City officials, however, are starting to rethink their support for the 120 percent annual interest rate - which pawnbrokers in Fall River and other unregulated municipalities have charged for years.

"I thought the 10 percent [interest] was for a year, not for a month," said Joseph Camara, the City Council's president, adding he expects council members will revisit the issue. "I don't think we were hoodwinked, but maybe I didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I think 10 percent a month is a little steep."

After long ignoring the 1902 law regulating pawnshops, state officials rediscovered it three years ago when commissioners at the Division of Banks learned a Revere pawnbroker had been illegally taking car titles as collateral for loans.

After that, commissioners surveyed the state's 351 towns and cities to compare interest rates. They found most had no regulations. Since then, they've told all those municipalities with pawnshops that they must set a local interest rate and then have it approved by the Division of Banks.

So far, commissioners have approved interest rates for only six municipalities - Revere, Lawrence, and Somerset at 36 percent a year, Quincy at 24 percent, Chicopee at 18 percent, and Cambridge at 13 percent. At least seven other communities are still waiting for approval, including Fall River and Boston, which is seeking to increase its rate to 60 percent a year.

But until commissioners approve their municipality's interest rates, the pawnshops are operating illegally, said David Cotney, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Banks. "People do stuff outside the law; I'm not blind to that," Cotney said. "But we're trying to make people comply with the law. We've made our decision clear: Until interest rates have been approved, charging interest is not authorized."

The state's new interest in regulating pawnshops has peeved Ed Bean, chairman of the board of Massachusetts Pawnbrokers Association. Compared with other states such as Florida and Texas - which he says allow their pawnshops to charge as much as 20 percent interest a month - Massachusetts already has some of the lowest rates.

If the Legislature votes to set a cap on interest rates at 3 percent a month, he expects about half of the state's 57 pawnshops to close.

"Why should we have the lowest interest rates in America?" Bean said. "What the commissioners are doing is wrong - and it will hurt the people they're trying to protect. When they need money, they'll have to sell their things instead of loaning them."

At New England Pawnbrokers, where two large German shepherds keep a close watch on the customers, Joy Covel seemed nonplussed when the shop's appraiser wouldn't buy her switchblade, necklaces, or bracelets. So when the 44-year-old pawned the gold rings her daughter gave her 15 years ago, she said she would use the $10 loan to buy milk and cigarettes. "I like having money in my pocket," she said.

If Covel was satisfied by her deal - in a month, she'll have to pay the pawnshop $16, the 10 percent interest plus the $5 base fee for pawning jewelry - Eddy, the 33-year-old unemployed carpenter, was less than enthusiastic.

Having pawned his wedding band and sold his great-grandfather's collection of century-old coins, the father of three grumbled about not having "some hidden treasure" that would have padded his wallet a bit more.

"Do I think this was a fair deal? Definitely not," said Eddy, who would only give his first name. "But what else can I do?"
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Slashing Detox


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/28/2003

When all else fails, they come to Ludy Young. They come confessing their crimes, they come and kneel before her to pray or beg for help. One woman, nearing withdrawal, recently burst into tears, pleading with her: "Please, please, I need your help. I need a bed."

Increasingly, however, the emergency room counselor whose office is a spare basement room at Boston Medical Center finds she can't help.

"This is the end of the line for a lot of people," Young said. "You know there's nowhere else for them to go, and it makes you feel helpless, like your hands are tied."

Less than a month after the state cut health coverage for 36,000 of its poorest residents and slashed nearly 50 percent of the beds at detox facilities throughout Massachusetts, those suffering the worst addictions to alcohol and drugs already see the difference: It's getting harder for them to sober up.

Before the budget cuts took effect on April 1, the state subsidized 997 beds, which last fiscal year helped some 45,000 patients get sober - at least for a little while. Now, only about 500 beds remain, and by the end of the fiscal year, the number will drop to 420.

"This just hit the streets, so the effects are only now becoming apparent," said Elizabeth Funk, president of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Corporations of Massachusetts. "But we expect to see an increase in deaths, arrests, domestic violence, child abuse, and emergency room visits."

At Boston Medical, there has been about a 25 percent increase in addicts seeking help at the emergency room.

Across the street, at the Boston Public Health Commission's central intake, social workers used to be able to find a detox bed in about a half-hour; now, it can take as long as a week.

And uninsured addicts say they've been left to compete for the few remaining state-subsidized detox beds.

It took Andrew Schena about two weeks to land a bed at Andrew House, a detox facility on Long Island where, of 30 beds, only five are available to the uninsured. After a year of feeding his addiction to Percocet and OxyContin, and on the verge of getting thrown out of his apartment, the 38-year-old unemployed construction worker decided it was time to clean up.

But like a growing number of addicts who lost their Medicaid benefits this month, Schena found it wasn't as easy as checking himself into the closest hospital. Lacking insurance, he went to Room 5 at BMC, central intake, and they couldn't help. He spent the next week-and-a-half waking early and calling around to local detoxes, asking if they had a bed.

When he finally landed one after two weeks, he said: "It was like winning the lottery."

Things could get worse next year.

A plan recently proposed by the House would cut 10 percent of the $37 million the state now provides for substance-abuse programs.

A provision in the House proposal would also forbid the state from awarding contracts to any social services agency that provides methadone treatment, a move that would end aid to nearly all the state's remaining detoxes.

The reason for the cuts, House officials say, is the state's looming deficit of $3 billion. Part of a raft of other cuts, they include the curtailing of everything from education programs to prescription drugs for the elderly.

"Nobody takes pride in these cuts, but the state is facing a historic decline in revenue," said Charlie Rasmussen, a spokesman for House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran. "Tough cuts had to be made."

But with a growing number of people using heroin and some 15,000 state residents receiving methadone, public health officials warned that if the House's proposal becomes law, it would be catastrophic and ultimately exacerbate the budget problems.

"This is huge," said Deborah Klein Walker, associate commissioner of the state Department of Public Health. "The problems now would get much worse."

To a group of men on the streets near Downtown Crossing, any potential pain pales compared with their current woes. Several said they're already getting unwelcome messages from the detoxes they've relied on for years.

The message Jeff Oldfield got during one recent effort to sober up: Don't come back. Two visits a year, he was told, would be the limit.

And rather than staying five to seven days, the detox told the 44-year-old homeless alcoholic he could stay at most three days, to make room for other uninsured addicts.

"I'm one of the people you could blame for all these problems," said Oldfield, adding that he's been to detox about 200 times. "But this is a disease. You relapse and relapse and relapse. It's hard to beat this."

What will he and others do?

Oldfield's friend William Gaskell said that after a while, "Jail is the only option."

Still, some will try to beat the odds and sober up on their own. Others, when their money runs out, will steal to feed their addictions. And some will keep trying for the few detox beds remaining.

The rest are likely to end up seeing Ludy Young or emergency room counselors at other hospitals.

They are coming in droves now, some already beginning the sweating, vomiting, and delirium of withdrawal.

With so few detox beds available, Young's office has started a waiting list. And with most of the beds now taken every night, she and her colleagues are looking to facilities across the state. Recently, a bed became available in Brockton, so the hospital sent the patient there in a cab, picking up the tab.

"It's very frustrating," Young said. "You want to help, but sometimes there's nothing you can do."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Homes Without Toilets


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/08/2002

The elderly Italian immigrants aren't eager to complain. For decades, they and at least a few other poor, non-English-speaking families in the North End have resigned themselves to taking the bad with the good.

The landlord of their century-old brick building is not raising rents, allowing them to live in one of the most expensive parts of the city. But she also is not investing in renovations, leaving them in an apartment where cleanliness means a sponge bath in the kitchen sink or a walk to the nearest pool house, and the toilet - shared with neighbors - is in a small closet in the hall.

"It's crazy people are still living in these illegal, primitive apartments, but it's a catch-22," said Giovanna Veitch, the family's social worker who runs a neighborhood outreach program for Action for Boston Community Development, a citywide antipoverty agency. "If they speak up, they fear they'll be evicted or the landlord will raise rents."

Despite ever-soaring real estate prices and gentrification that spruced up some of the shabbiest parts of Boston, more than 2,500 city residents reported living in homes without complete indoor plumbing, according to the most recent data from the 2000 Census.

Although that reflects just over 1 percent of the nearly 240,000 homes in the city, Boston ranks fifth, among the 50 largest cities in the United States, in the percentage of homes lacking sufficient plumbing.

News that people like the Italian immigrants, who asked to remain anonymous, live in such antiquated homes - which violate city codes - has perplexed housing officials.

"If some are still living like this, I would say it's very rare - much lower than what the census has reported," said Robert W. Consalvo, director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

One theory, he and others suggest, is that many of those who said they live without plumbing misunderstood the question. It asked: "Do you have COMPLETE plumbing facilities in this house, apartment, or mobile home; that is, 1) hot and cold piped water, 2) a flush toilet, and 3) a bathtub or shower?"

Tony Johnston, for example, said he misunderstood the question.

Like some 2,000 people living in one of the city's dwindling number of rooming houses - low-rent apartment buildings - the 43-year-old clothing-store manager has a sink but no shower, bath, or toilet in his unit. There is, however, a bathroom on his floor, which he shares with other residents in the building in Brighton.

"It seems to me a lot of people, probably many of those in rooming houses, got confused," said Mark Winkeller, executive director of Caritas Communities, a nonprofit, affordable housing company that owns several rooming houses in the city, including the one on Commonwealth Avenue where Johnston lives.

If there was one place in Boston where housing officials speculated others might be living without a full complement of plumbing it was on a 10-acre lot at the edge of the city near Dedham, the city's only trailer park.

Yet a visit to the Boston Trailer Park, with more than 100 mobile homes, proved that all the trailers not only have toilets, showers, and hot and cold water but everything from couches to washing machines to newly built decks.

"We have all the modern conveniences here," said Arthur C. Tanck, president of the trailer park's tenants association.

For some in the city, it's hard to believe anyone could still be living without private showers or toilets, even in the North End, which has some of the city's oldest buildings.

"It's been at least 20 years since I heard of someone living here without indoor plumbing," said Joanne Prevost Anzalone, president of Anzalone Realty, the largest real estate company in the North End. "I've been probably in every building in the North End. I just can't believe there are any apartments left without toilets."

While more people in Boston reported living without plumbing than anywhere else in New England, the percentage was higher in 11 other cities and towns, ranging from 4.4 percent of the residents in Lawrence to 1.2 percent of the population in Worcester, the census figures showed.

Nationally, the number of houses without plumbing dropped to about 670,000, to 0.6 percent, from about 1.1 million a decade ago. In 1940, when the Census Bureau began keeping plumbing records, about half of all homes lacked plumbing. Today, San Francisco, with 2 percent, leads major cities with homes without complete plumbing.

As for Boston, which ranks behind Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles, and is statistically equal to Oakland, Detroit, and Chicago, city officials and advocates doubt the numbers.

"It's against the law," said Lisa Timberlake, a spokeswoman for the Boston Inspectional Services Department, which monitors code violations. "We would have the unit condemned. It must have been a misunderstanding."

Jay Rose, manager of the housing unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, said: "It's astounding to me if these numbers are true, but I find them hard to believe. I thought we would have gotten way past that by now."

Unfortunately, however, the threat of losing an apartment is enough to keep some tenants quiet.

Veitch, the social worker, said that at least six of her clients still live in North End apartments without showers or toilets. Rather than complaining to the city, which could condemn the buildings, she's trying to persuade the landlords to renovate the timeworn apartments.

But because the investments would take tens of thousands of dollars, and the rents her clients pay are now less than half what they would pay at the market rate, she isn't optimistic they will take action any time soon.

"It's better to be in an apartment without a bathroom than on the streets," she said. "But people really shouldn't have to live like this anymore."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Island of Calm

Incomes low, contentment high

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  9/02/2002

GOSNOLD - When not debating budget issues as one of this small town's three selectmen, Kris Lombard is stocking her general store, serving as a librarian or teacher at the one-room schoolhouse, maintaining neighbors' homes, or checking on her husband, Asa, the town's harbormaster and waste department manager.

With few fires to tend to, Seth Garfield, chief of the town's volunteer fire department and chairman of the harbor committee, tends to his oyster farm, lawn-mowing business, and catering clients. When he can, he goes scuba diving to earn a few dollars from a local marine towing company.

And because being secretary for the town doesn't pay enough, Sara Smith also pumps gas at the fuel dock, cleans houses, and collects the mooring fees from visiting boaters.

"A lot of people do a lot of different jobs here - it's the only way to survive and maintain our lifestyle," Smith said.

With the lighthouse atop the rocky cliffs of Gay Head in view over on Martha's Vineyard, beach plums and blackberry bushes lining pristine beaches, and old cedar-shingle homes rising from a well-manicured hill on the most westward of the Elizabeth Islands, it's hard to tell that this town ranks as the poorest community in all of Massachusetts.

But on the 16 islands that make up the town of Gosnold, where many longtime residents wear multiple hats to make ends meet, few were surprised to learn the 2000 Census ranked their town's median income - $22,344 - below all others in the state.

Of course, with only 39 households surveyed, many here were quick to note that the unflattering statistic didn't reflect the real money in this town, which for decades has been the summer home of the Forbes family and other magnates.

Still, this isn't a wealthy community - and that's just the way the regulars like it. Long resistant to change, the scores who live here through winter and the hundreds who come every summer look across the Sound at the Vineyard and feel they're seeing their poorer cousin, an island overrun by tourists and drowning in commercialism.

On Cuttyhunk, the island with the largest year-round
population and the only one open to the public, Bruce Borges says he's little different from many others who have lived here for years - a family man who likes to work, doesn't covet money or possessions, and enjoys the solitude of living off the mainland. The 65-year-old lobsterman and former town selectman is content rising before dawn and spending seven days a week, often 13 hours a day, pulling up hundreds of traps around the island.

"You'd be surprised how little you need to live on when you don't have the malls, the cars, and the rest of it," he said. "We like it that way."

Though there is an increasing number of visitors, a few thousand every summer now, locals are doing little to promote tourism. In fact, many residents shun publicity and would rather dissuade tourists from visiting Cuttyhunk, one of the largest of the Elizabeth Islands. Some islands in the chain are so small no one lives on them.

There are few, if any, cars, and residents like to keep the mostly dirt roads clear for their golf carts and for roving pets like Henry, the affable basset hound who idles by the harbor and serves as the town's unofficial sentinel.

"We want to keep this an unspoiled island," says Carolyn Powers, curator of the Cuttyhunk Historical Society. "We have very little resources, and there's only so far we can stretch our drinking water, electrical power, and marina space."

Because of a fear of overcrowding, the sleepy 2 1/2-mile-long island, long known for some of the world's best striped-bass fishing, has also done little to cash in on the 400th anniversary of the town's "discovery." The 1602 demarcation by British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold will be marked only by a low-key lecture series.

Tourism has occasionally become an issue of controversy. Although property taxes are very low compared with most towns - $1.99 for $1,000 of assessed value - a rise in the number of boaters could reduce them. Mooring fees already make up a quarter of the town's $1 million budget. But a recent decision to build a public bathroom by the docks rankled some residents.

The desire to discourage visitors partly explains why Gosnold remains a dry town and has no restaurants, movie theaters, or golf courses. The nightlife mainly consists of potlucks, bonfires, and the annual talent show at the church. And because the town is so tightly knit, local officials say they can't remember the last arrest. Complaints to the town's two police officers are usually for lost eyeglasses or dog bites.

The aversion to tourism has long been a dilemma for those like Rick Hopps, 29, who has been coming to visit the island his whole life. The captain and son of the owner of Alert II, the only ferry that connects the island with the mainland, said: "There's a fine line between annoying people and trying to fill your boat. People live here because they want to get away from it all. The consensus here is that they like it when the tourists go away."

To finance their quiet lives on Cuttyhunk, 14 miles off the coast of New Bedford, many here try to earn enough in the summer to carry them through the year.

Don Lynch, another selectman, makes most of his income in June, July, and August towing disabled boats. In the winter, when the work is available, he helps neighbors with work on their homes.

"It's a tight squeeze," he said, "but it's worth it. We can sit here and watch the sunset and sunrise and that's worth all the money in the world."

Tessa Olsen, Gosnold's town clerk, cleans homes, cooks for families, looks after houses of summer residents during the winter, and produces shoulder bags to sell in her mother's small gift shop, one of only two on Cuttyhunk.

"We get by," she said. "Everyone here has a roof over their heads and there's no feeling of being in the projects. But people have to work to make a living."

Last year, Chuck and Dawn Vogt, who have summered here for decades, were struggling as they tried to keep the only restaurant in town open. But the couple couldn't cover their expenses. Now, instead, they maintain a small food stand they set up near the docks and do odd jobs, even on the mainland.

"We'll never get rich doing this, but this is the good life for us," Chuck Vogt says. "When you evaluate your life, you realize you don't need much. It's the simple things that matter."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Taking Advantage of Free Care

'I Would Really Like to be Able to Walk'
Free Care for Needy Foreigners Clash With Reality of Struggling Health System

By David Abel and Alice Dembner  |  Globe Staff  |  9/26/2002

Smiling shyly, the paraplegic 11-year-old boy shows how he uses his thick, calloused hands to move around, enabling him to earn about a dollar a day shining shoes back home in Honduras. He has come to Boston for an operation on his legs, he says, "so I can walk to school."

After six months here seeking surgery and prosthetics, with the backing of the persistent pastor of a Jamaica Plain church, Noel Ramirez has learned how to speak and smile to win doctors over.

Over the past decade, using videos or escorting sick children like Ramirez, Rubenia Bomatay has made emotional appeals to Boston-area hospitals that have secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in free treatment for at least a dozen poor patients her church has flown up from Latin America.

"I know it well that there isn't money, that we need insurance, and that the state has no requirement to pay for these operations," she says. "I just ask God that he will help him. I know, legally, that the hospital doesn't have to do anything. But they do often, and we are very thankful for that."

Local hospitals provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free care annually to needy patients, and some have programs to treat groups of foreign patients from medical trouble spots. And the hospitals direct most free care to US residents, especially at a time when budget cuts are slashing social services.

Still, as Bomatay has found, few are willing to turn away a desperate foreign patient on their doorstep. The 47-year-old pastor has made an art out of obtaining free care for patients, ranging from open heart surgery and the removal of cancerous tumors at major hospitals to free medicine at health clinics.

Though doctors and health care advocates say Bomatay's tactics are unusual, some worry that - however well-intentioned her efforts - her success may come at the expense of US patients in an overburdened system.

"I think it's a heroic thing to bring families here who are disadvantaged," says Rob Restuccia, executive director of Health Care for All, an advocacy group. "But the fact of the matter is that we can't sustain it, especially with 50,000 residents being thrown off Medicaid. We're in a health care crisis and we have to be careful where our dollars go."

It didn't take long for Bomatay to figure out how the system could work for impoverished visitors.

Shortly after moving to Boston from Honduras in 1994, her blood pressure began to rise and one of her children, who had become a US citizen, took her to Boston Medical Center. She stared in awe at the technology and at the contrast with hospitals in Honduras. "It gave me a lot of sadness for my country," she says.

Then the bill came. But to her surprise, the doctors told her she shouldn't worry. They had ways to cover the expense for patients without insurance or residency. The free care and impressive service gave her an idea: "It made me realize that I had to help my people, those who really needed the help," she says.

But things haven't always gone so smoothly. Some of the patients her church has brought to Boston have spent months seeking free care. Martiza Soto, a 28-year-old Honduran who spent eight months here seeking treatment for mouth cancer, returned home without the needed operation - and eventually died.

For Ramirez and his mother, Ursolina, it's been a long wait since they arrived in March with tickets and visas obtained through Bomatay's church, La Iglesia Reformada Emanuel in Jamaica Plain. Ursolina left six other children with relatives at their cramped home in Teopacenti, a small town in southern Honduras.

Soon after arriving,
Noel saw Dr. Michael J. Goldberg, a pediatric orthopedist and chairman of orthopedics at Tufts-New England Medical Center, who agreed to waive his fees for the evaluation. Goldberg found Ramirez was missing a bone in each leg and needs amputation of his deformed bones and feet to fit prosthetic legs. Although Goldberg was willing to do free surgery, the hospital rejected the boy's application for free care and referred him to the Shriners, whose mission is to provide free care to children.

"On occasion, the empathy of the physician and the business reality of the health system are not in synch," Goldberg says. The operation and prosthetics would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

At Children's Hospital, doctors said they were concerned about making the boy's condition worse in the long run. "He needs a plan for the rest of his life," said Dr. James Kasser. "He'll wear out the prosthetics every few years or he'll grow out of them. Then he might be worse off."

Ramirez took the rejections hard. "The boy was crying every day and he thought nobody wanted him," says his mother, who is staying with Noel at Bomatay's home in Dorchester.

But Bomatay's persistence paid off this week on at least one front: Doctors at Boston Medical Center performed another much-needed operation on the boy, freeing an undescended testicle.

BMC, which provides the most free care in the area - $226 million in the last fiscal year - rarely turns away patients in need of treatment, especially children. "Our job, as we see it, is to care for children who come to see us," says Dr. Barry Zuckerman, chairman of BMC's pediatrics department.

The medical center put his request for leg surgery on hold while the Shriners Hospital in Springfield considered Ramirez's case. That hospital specializes in orthopedics, treats about 120 foreign children a year, and has an affiliate in Mexico City.

In the end, it's likely the Shriners will treat the boy, says hospital administrator Mark Niederpruem, but the decision rests with its doctors.

While he waits, Ramirez spends most of his time watching television and playing with Bomatay's younger children, picking up a few sayings in English.

But most of all now, he dreams about returning home as a new boy, taller and more mobile.

"I would really like to be able to walk," he says. "It would make it easier for me to help my mom."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe