The Man With No Identity

Devern and Ryan

Devern and Ryan

For more than a decade, Richard Abraham was one of the hardest working residents at the House. He was always willing to jump in the truck with C.W to pick up donated items and give them away to people in desperate need.

“He’s been my go-to guy,” C.W. said. “He’s the most quiet, unassuming, gentle person. And he never complains. He’s just a great person. He’s always willing to help people out.”

Over time, physical problems took their toll on Richard, and he had to stop working on the truck. A bad hip forced him to walk with a cane. He developed a serious case of cellulitis. And Sister Rita now has to wash and wrap his feet every day in an extraordinary act of caring that you will find in no other shelter in the state.

In most cases, Richard’s physical problems would qualify him for Supplemental Security Income, which would help him get a home of his own. But Richard fell through a little-known hole in the safety net.

He didn’t have a birth certificate. And because of that missing piece of paper, he couldn’t get any assistance from agencies that help the poor and disabled. Which is why he had depended on the House of Mercy for everything he needed to survive for the past 14 years.

“I don’t know where I would be without the House of Mercy,” he said recently. “I would have had a lot of obstacles to battle on my own.” 

The determined pursuit of a homeless man’s dream

From time to time, people at The House had tried to help Richard find his birth certificate. He thought Los Angeles was his birthplace. But the county clerk there couldn’t find him in the records. And it seemed like a hopeless cause. Then Ryan Acuff got involved.

Ryan is one of the most dedicated, up-and-coming social justice activists in Rochester. He has worked tirelessly to help poor people find affordable housing and fight unfair foreclosures. Which is why City Newspaper recently included him in The Rochester 10, a list of people “doing great things you should know about.”

At the House of Mercy, Ryan—who has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Rochester–works as an advocate and case manager. And one of his specialties is helping homeless and disabled people like Richard find a home of their own.

“Ryan is really good at fighting red tape and finding housing for people who are difficult to place,” said Sister Grace. “And he’s tireless in his efforts. He just doesn’t give up. He’s a great addition to our team.”

A remarkable story of tenacious advocacy

Ryan’s first move was to re-try the county clerk’s office in Los Angeles. But another search there came up empty. Then he took Richard to Social Security to try to apply for Supplemental Security Income for his mounting physical problems. And that’s when Ryan stumbled on a major mystery.

There were two completely different names, birthplaces and birth dates connected to Richard’s Social Security number. And neither name was Richard Abraham.

To try to unravel the mystery, Ryan took Richard to the Judicial Process Commission for fingerprinting to see if there were any records in the criminal justice system.

That’s when they struck pay dirt. Because of a minor run-in with the law thirty years before, Richard’s fingerprints linked up with one of the new names Ryan had uncovered: Devern Gamble.

Ryan then tried to track down a birth certificate for Devern in Alabama, California and Florida, three states where his parents might have lived. Finally, when Ryan was running out of options, the Alabama Center for Health Statistics found a match.

Devern Gamble was born in Perote, Ala.–a small, unincorporated community in the southern part of the state—in the 1950s.

Untangling the past

Once he located the official birth certificate, Ryan helped Devern re-apply for the Supplemental Security Income assistance he deserved. And this time he received a conditional approval. He was also asked to see a doctor and a psychologist.

Through his work with the psychologist, Devern began to recall the past. His parents had died at a very young age. And at some point, Devern became estranged from the rest of the family.

The separation from his relatives was a terrible blow. In his anger and pain, Devern re-invented his identity and gradually forgot his past. And that’s how Devern Gamble became Richard Abraham, a man without a family, a birthplace, and a very important piece of paper.

What would have happened without the House of Mercy?

It took Ryan Acuff more than a year and a half to help Devern Gamble get the disability assistance he needed for a home of his own.

There were countless meetings and phone calls with government agencies in Monroe County, Los Angeles, Florida and Alabama. All told, Ryan spent more than 300 hours on a case.

But thanks to Ryan and The House of Mercy, Devern is now ready to end fourteen years of homelessness and find his own apartment.

“The House of Mercy helped me overcome a lot of obstacles in my life,” Devern said. But I’ve been here quite awhile, so it’s time for me to move back into society and make room for someone else who needs to get their life together.”

Even though there’s plenty of work left to do to find an affordable apartment, the prospect of an independent lifestyle has made a noticeable change on Devern Gamble.

“He’s a different person,” said C.W. “He used to be so quiet. Now he’s telling jokes.”

“He’s seems so happy,” said Sister Grace. “He knows who he is now. He has an identity. And he can finally get the financial help he needs to live on his own. “

As for Ryan Acuff, the resolution of this complicated case offers an emotional reward.

“It’s really a victory, and it makes me feel great,” he says. “Devern was homeless for fourteen years because he didn’t have a birth certificate. So I wasn’t going to give up until we got this issue resolved.”

Added Sister Grace, “At the House of Mercy, we help people who fall through the cracks in the safety net. We take on the toughest cases. And we never give up on the people we serve. Devern’s story is another powerful example of that.”