SAVANNAH, Ga. — A Georgia woman is living in her car after losing her disability payments because of an issue with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Demanding money back due to overpayments at the SSA is a growing issue we first told you about in September.
Now, some people are homeless as a result.
Denise Woods struggles to walk, has lupus and cognitive heart failure, but was able to rent a three-bedroom house with her adult son and grandson until March 2022 when the government terminated her Social Security disability payments without any notice.
“It’s like a mansion to me now,” Woods told Action News Jax Ben Becker as she now drives to strip malls, truck stops and parking lots near Savannah looking for a safe place to park her SUV in the only home she can now afford.
“This is where I sleep, I keep a knife in the door I have everything here,” said Woods whose life’s belongings jammed into the back seat.
According to a letter sent by the Social Security Administration, the agency is demanding back $57,968.60 after determining it was overpaying her.
Woods can’t come-up with the money because of her disability she can only work part-time and makes just $14 per hour. So, the agency is withholding her entire monthly check of $2,048 per month until February 2026.
“This shouldn’t be like for anybody in life or anybody,” said Woods, “It’s hell.”
In an Action News Jax investigation, Becker has been reporting for months on what some call a crisis at the Social Security Administration. We’ve heard from hundreds of people who say the letters demanding repayment are winding up in their mailboxes.
After sending Woods disability payments for a decade, the agency later said she wasn’t eligible because she was making too much money in various jobs.
“If I owe it to you, then you said I worked and made so much money. If I made six figures, why am I living like this? I am a college graduate I know how to manage money,” said Woods.
In fiscal year 2023, the Social Security Administration recovered about $5 billion in overpayments with $21 billion still uncollected.
Notices initially ask beneficiaries to repay the money directly, but the agency more often recoups the money by reducing or halting monthly benefits – it can also garnish wages and federal tax refunds.
“I want to get Social Security just to fix it,” said U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D) who is Chair of the Social Security Subcommittee. He suggested the agency could be misinterpreting a law about recovering all overpayments.
“If we can’t just get them to change administratively because, you know, they take an oath that they will follow the law. So, it may mean we need to change the law,” Brown said.
Internal SSA records obtained by KFF Health News and Cox Media Group, our parent company, show very few beneficiaries even try to challenge the agency’s overpayment notices by filing for a waiver or asking for reconsideration.
Only 12% of the 2.2 million people who experienced an overpayment in FY 2023 sought relief.
Advocacy groups and others say they don’t know how many people become homeless like Woods after their benefits are terminated, but they say anecdotal accounts are common.
As for Woods, living in parking lot amid traffic and birds coming and going, leaves her feeling trapped.
“I would not wish this on the birds that’s eating worms out here. I want to wish that on nobody.”
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The head of the Senate Finance Committee said he will start monthly meetings with the Social Security Administration on how they are monitoring this issue because of how our reporting exposed gaps in the system.