Monica Yant Kinney: Catch-up time: People who rated a column

Jimmy Curran , looking for an apartment with his sister, Adrian, in September. He wanted to work and still receive some assistance despite what he was told the eligibility rules were.
Jimmy Curran , looking for an apartment with his sister, Adrian, in September. He wanted to work and still receive some assistance despite what he was told the eligibility rules were. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 25, 2011

And now, for Part Two of my annual year in review, in which I pause to bring readers up to speed and answer questions like, "Whatever happened to that guy who lived in the Starbucks?"

Oh, you mean Dennis Jones?

Jones was the homeless man who spent 12, 14 hours a day at the Starbucks at Broad and Pine Streets, finding comfort in an unlikely urban family. He kept plugging his laptop into an outlet by the front corner window even after revealing his secret, securing mental-health services, and moving into a subsidized apartment.

The 58-year-old Camden native had spent years in the military and worked as an illustrator before losing his way. At Starbucks, he confronted social disorders by making music (Jones plays keyboard) and forcing himself to talk with patrons from all walks of life.

Jones' artwork - he paints pets - drew raves from regulars. Last fall, he landed an art show on the coffee shop's walls.

After my October column, Jones received a half-dozen commissions from readers wanting him to immortalize their pooches. He even sold the portrait of French bulldogs featured in the newspaper.

"I was invited to Arcadia University to tell my story about how art helped me with my disabilities," Jones reports. "And a woman from an animal hospital called about us doing a show."

Linda Ruth Paskell, the professor who had Jones speak to her Artist in the Community class, now counts him as a friend and says his honesty and perseverance "deeply impacted my students."

Beyond his local fame, Jones tells me he's received nibbles about publishing a children's book. He traveled by bus to Seattle in late fall and called me by phone from Arizona recently, where he's spending the month seeing friends and exploring opportunities.

"It's kind of empty, not being at Starbucks, but I have my music and projects," Jones said. "There's energy everywhere you go."

Singer rests her pipes

On another musical note, I'm pleased to share that Katelyn Krapf came thisclose to winning the Avon Voices singing competition.

Krapf, a 19-year-old Downingtown High grad I wrote about in the spring, exemplifies the DIY guide to getting famous: She boasts five websites - try http://www.youtube.com/katelynrose7654 - where people can look and listen to the self-described "nobody."

She survived two rounds of online voting to land in the top 75 of 6,000 contestants. Not bad for a West Chester University student aching to stand out in the crowd. As she put it when we first met, "There are so many people out there just like me."

Krapf didn't dwell on the contest results. She was too swamped studying and logging hours at an Exton beauty salon.

"My singing is on hold," she tells me on a rare day off after exams. "There's just not time for anything other than work and school. I need to get my education and have a normal life like everyone else."

Krapf still writes music and recorded two songs in the fall, but has no performances scheduled. She wants to be a teacher or cosmetologist, but is weighing an offer to spend the summer in Nashville.

"I've worked way too hard to forget about singing," she confides, "but I'm only 19. I have all the time in the world."

Don't mess with Jimmy

My September column on Jimmy Curran is the rare story that enraged both conservatives and liberals. Curran, a sharp 22-year-old Temple graduate from Montgomery County, was about to start his first job in marketing at Independence Blue Cross. But the officials who control his health care preferred he remain unemployed and tethered to government assistance.

Here is a young man eager to get off Social Security disability and become a productive tax-, rent- and co-paying member of society, I wrote. And the government's trying to stop him?

Curran has spinal muscular atrophy, which confines him to a wheelchair. He can type 50 words a minute and analyze complex financial data, but needs help eating, bathing, and getting dressed.

After turning 21, Curran qualified for more than $150,000 worth of attendant assistance a year, paid for by the state and federal government. As a working man, he wanted to pay his share of his care. But even at the bottom of the corporate ladder, he discovered his paycheck rendered him ineligible for the help he needs to function on the job.

"I want to work, I'm meant to work," he argued. And yet, if he sat home watching TV, "I could stay on this waiver forever."

Disabilities experts weighed in on the predicament and Curran exhaustively researched his options. He reported for his first day realizing it might be his last. Blessedly, he remains gainfully employed.

"The solution to my dilemma exists, and it has existed," Curran reports. "The government officials were so grossly ignorant of their own programs" they didn't realize that even middle-class professionals can remain eligible for Medicaid for attendant care only.

Curran works from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. as a member of a marketing team contributing to monthly trend newsletters and quarterly competitor reports. "The experience is allowing me to learn a great deal about health-care reform," he says, "as well as how companies compete in the health-care industry."

Curran and his best friend rent an apartment in a Center City high-rise, the better to explore bars, clubs, and restaurants. His favorite hot spot so far? "The Continental."

"I'm grateful to have a job and my freedom," Curran tells me. "I'm not taking it for granted. The work is interesting and I'm excited as ever about my future."

A fallen man rebounds

I end with Mike O'Neill. This weekend, the high-profile gambling addict celebrates an anniversary: two years since he placed his last disastrous bet.

"On Christmas Eve 2009, I took instant lottery tickets out of my kids' stockings," O'Neill says shamefully. "I thought I could hit big." Instead, he crashed.

Regular readers remember that in early 2010, O'Neill - Jenkintown's former mayor and tax collector - admitted embezzling nearly $250,000 in public funds that he blew on the slots at Parx Casino.

In January, the fallen public servant was sentenced to 10 to 23 months in prison. He volunteered to pay restitution even though the Jenkintown School District was made whole by its insurer. He's paid $20,000 so far. O'Neill so wants to settle his self-made debt he even made the district's insurance company the beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

With time off for good behavior, O'Neill spent seven months in a work-release program at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Eagleview. At night, he slept in a "hut" with 15 men. He left each day at 6 a.m. for his caretaker's job at Immaculate Conception Church and resumed confinement at 4:30 p.m. sharp.

Some may think O'Neill got off easy, but "for me," he says, "it was just hell."

"Everything was so regimented. You're always being watched and searched. You have no control," he says. "I realized all the things I took for granted - like being able to sleep in your own bed, eat what you want when you want."

Behind bars, O'Neill attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and helped younger inmates suffering from addictions. Once free, he resumed weekly therapy with counselor C.P. Mirarchi, who tells me he's seeing five new patients a week at the busiest gambling practice in the state.

"The casinos actually pay for the treatment," O'Neill says in amazement, though we know gamblers' losses foot the bill. "I played so much, I must have bought the new lightboard outside Parx."

In 2012, O'Neill aims to grow a fledgling handyman business. He hopes to move out of his mother's basement and back into the house he's rented to a military family, but realizes he may never again have the money to live on his own.

More than anything, he seeks to heal wounds inflicted on his family.

"They might think I don't know what I've done, but in my heart, I know," he insists. "You can only say, 'Sorry,' so much. I need to show them by example, by staying clean and sober, by not gambling."

"I look at gambling like diabetes," O'Neill adds. "I'm always going to be an addict. I'm never going to be cured. But I can keep it in remission. The urges are gone. There is help for people like me."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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