Sitting across from the 61-story One Liberty Place, John Cocosis was drawing a fighter jet, as copied from a book. He told me it takes about a week to finish each drawing, for which people have paid him from $40 to $120. Strangers also leave money in his plastic donation box. Some give him food, but since John has no access to a refrigerator, he must give what he can't eat right away to other homeless people.
John was in the navy but didn't last long since he tore up his achilles tendon during training. He then became an iron worker and was making more than $8,000 a month by 2000.
Climbing up a condemned tower, John fell 75 feet. This accident destroyed both John and his boss’ business.
For nearly 13 years, John received $6,160 a month in compensation, but when Liberty Mutual took over his policy from Peerless Insurance in 2012, they stopped paying.
“It's called starving you out.” John said. “They're hoping you'll die before they're forced to pay you again."
"Do you have a lawyer for this?"
"Yeah. I have a lawyer and the whole nine yards."
"But the lawyer can't front you money?"
"No. They're not allowed to. It's a conflict of interest."
"Oh, I didn't know that."
"Yeah, I didn't know that either, but it is what it is. I just have to suffer and without my family now for over a year, and I'm on the streets trying to survive, and I send home money to take care of the kids every couple of days, through moneygram. It's all I can do."
"And you have two kids?"
"Yup, Caleb and Nivea. They're nine and ten. Their birthdays are coming up, in June and July."
"So you were in Florida?"
"That's where you're from?"
"No, I'm from New Jersey. I just moved to Florida after the accident, because the winters are easier on my joints. I have so much metal in my body, it's ridiculous. I was an iron worker. I fell 75 feet. The safety broke."
"Where were you in Jersey?"
"Runnemede, New Jersey. I was working when I fell. I just got back from being on the road for, I don't know, three months. The boss asked me to do a quick, local job. It was a really simple job. I got halfway up the tower and the safety broke."
"And what's the name of the company?"
"Rycar Communications. R, Y, C, A, R. They're not even in business anymore. They couldn't get any insurance. After the incident, they dropped him, and he couldn't get any insurance anywhere else."
"So, if you fell 75 feet, they should pay you for the rest of your life because you can't work."
"That's what they were ordered too, but Liberty Mutual decided they weren't going to pay."
"How much were you getting?"
"1,540 a week."
"That's not even enough, really."
"That's a week!"
"Oh shit, that's not bad," I laughed. "I thought you said a month!"
"No, a week."
"That's pretty good, but it's only fair, considering what happened to you."
"Yeah, but it's still not 70% of what I made. I made a lot more than that."
"And you have to deal with the constant pain."
"Like, you wouldn't believe. I just have to live with it. They shut off my medical, they shut off my checks, they shut off everything and just left me to die."
"How many people are in your predicament?"
"Ah, my lawyers said a thousand. The biggest claims from Peerless, they decided, 'Nah, we're not going to pay. We're going to fight this out in court.' They will have to pay you, eventually, but they have billions of dollars, they can starve you out for as long as they want, until the court says, 'That's it.' Now we have to go to the superior court. We won last year in regular court, but they say, 'Make us pay.' Now we have to go to Superior Court."
"So what's the timeline?"
"It could be another year. I could be another two years."
"Yup. Meanwhile, I'm losing my family and everything else. Corporations run Amrica. They have all the power, we have none. If you get hurt on the job, you're screwed. If you get hurt, period. It depends on the insurance company. Insurance companies hold all the cards."
"So how long ago did it happen?"
"I fell on March 14th in 2000, and they shut off my checks on December 4th, 2012."
"Wow, so it's been three years of this shit."
"Yeah, but we lived off our savings for a little over a year, then that ran out."
"It's amazing that it hasn't been taken care of in three years."
"Yeah. I mean, we went through the court, and the court ruled in my favor, but Liberty Mutual still said, 'Make us, make us pay.' You can't make a billion dollar insurance company do shit!"
"And you have to pay your lawyer all this time."
"No, they have to pay it. They have to pay under workers' compensation law in New Jersey, but these laws are all written for the insurance company. They can do whatever they want, whenever they want... however they want. They destroy lives. They've done their best to destroy mine."
Being homeless has also weakened John's kidneys, and he only has one left. The day after I met him, John was scheduled to have surgery for his kidney. John, "I may not make it. I already told my kids, 'Daddy may not come home.'"
A year ago, John's wife left him and their two kids. He has no idea where she is, and neither do her parents. Caleb and Nivea are living with them.
At home, I googled "John Cocosis" and found John's GoFundMe page. It's odd, I thought, that he had not mentioned this online fundraising activity. If he was a hustler, surely he would have mentioned this so money might flow his way. All the details on John’s GoFundMe page also matched with what he had told me.
I also found a bunch of arrest records from John's time in the St. Petersburg area. Now, it is all too easy to be arrested as a homeless person, but John wasn't homeless in Florida for most of his stay there, and the charges don’t just include retail theft (shoplifting) and vagrancy, but also grand theft, which in Florida means stealing something of at least $300 in value. John has also been charged with aggravated assault in December of 2012, assault in March of 2013, then battery in July of 2013. Three minor drug charges, including one for paraphenalia, round out John’s criminal record in Florida.
The dates of John’s arrests also raise issues. In 2009 and 2011, John was busted for trying to obtain a controlled substance by fraud, so he got in trouble before his cash ran out, but people with long term medical problems may need pills beyond their prescriptions. In January of 2013, John was also charged with grand theft in two incidents, so these occured not even two months after his compensation checks had been cut off.
I also wondered if John was really from the Philly area? What if he had just come up from Florida and decided to buy a Sean Couturier’s Flyers jersey just to look local? Online, though, I did find two South Jersey addresses for John Cocosis.
Further, there’s a YouTube video of John where two photos of him in the hospital are briefly shown.
On John's FaceBook page, there's a photo of him and his wife, accompanied by this message:
This is my wife and I. The reason I'm doing this Facebook this is that I've been searching for my mother for the past 20+ years. I was adopted in Feb of 1972. Her name was Donna Halley from what I've been told but cannot believe everything my adopting parents expecially my mother has told me. The adoption was done privately through a Dr Dolloff who passed away over two decades ago and took that secret to his grave. If my real blood birth mother reads this, I want her to know that I'm not looking for anything but the truth. Who I am where I come from who my father was. Do I have any brother's or sister's. And the real reason I was abandoned. I'm not doing this to make friends or meet people. I just want to know who my mother is. I'm asking with all my " please don't turn your back on me now. I'm writing this with tears in my eyes and a hole in my heart that I have lived with for 40 years. Please have the compassion to answer this.
Your lost but loving son