If you came across a backpack stuffed with $40,000, what would you do with it?
For Glen James, a homeless man in Boston, the answer was simple. James is a resident of a Boston-area homeless shelter. On Saturday, Sept. 4, under the canopy at the T.J. Maxx store in the nearby town of Dorchester, James sat among the shopping carts, shaded from the late-summer sun. As shoppers bustled through the South Bay Mall, James proofread a letter, resting on the bag he brings with him when he panhandles.
As he read, James noticed a young man nearby, sitting on an overturned carriage in front of a Best Buy store. He had a bag, too, a black backpack at his feet. Nothing out of the ordinary here, so James went back to his letter. When James looked up again, the man was gone. But his bag was still there…
After a time, James went over to see what had been left behind. Inside, he found $2,400 in cash and nearly $40,000 in travelers checks, along with a passport and personal papers. For a homeless man who subsists on food stamps and spare change, it was a staggering sum, maybe even a chance at a new life. But James, a slight, bespectacled man in his mid-50s who says he has been homeless for five years, said the thought of keeping the money never crossed his mind.
“Even if I were desperate for money, I would not have kept even a penny of the money found,” he said Monday in a handwritten statement. “God has always very well looked after me.” Police say James flagged down officers patrolling the area in front of a TJ Maxx Store that same Saturday night. He told them he found a black backpack that contained “a large sum of money and a passport,” a police statement said.
About an hour later, they got a call about a male customer at a Best Buy store who said he lost his backpack. That night, the backpack–and all the money stuffed inside–was returned to the owner, a student visiting Boston from China. James, a man who lives in a homeless shelter and relies on charity for change to wash his clothes, had returned a small fortune without a second thought.
When Glen James found himself in front of a room full of reporters earlier this week, he used his time in the spotlight to thank others. He thanked the people who look after him at a homeless shelter. He thanked “every pedestrian stranger” who has given him spare change when he has panhandled on Boston sidewalks. He even thanked one of the city’s mayoral candidates who dropped $7 into his cup. “It’s just nice to have some money in one’s pockets so that as a homeless man I don’t feel absolutely broke all the time,” he said in a written statement.
For his actions, James received a citation Monday at Boston police headquarters, where Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis praised his “extraordinary show of character and honesty.” “It really is a remarkable tribute to him,” Davis said. James, who has a speech impediment, said little at the ceremony, saying he was self-conscious about his stutter. As cameras flashed, he smiled nervously and appeared somewhat overwhelmed. But when asked how he felt about returning so much money, he did not pause.
“Very, very good,” he said, letting loose a hearty laugh. In his statement, James wrote about how he found the money and a bit about himself. He had worked at a courthouse for 13 years as a file clerk, he said, before being fired. On Monday, the courts could not immediately confirm his employment. James could have gotten another job, he said, but he suffers from an inner-ear disorder that causes prolonged vertigo spells.
“The shelter is the perfect living situation with someone who has Meniere’s disease,” he wrote. “There are many people in the shelter to attend to me.” James said he has siblings and other relatives he could live with, but does not want to burden them. He said he had not met the man whose bag he found, but said he was “very glad to make sure” it was returned to him safely.
James said he receives the “blessing” of food stamps and panhandles for money for laundry, transportation, and “odds and ends.” Just having a little money, he said, can make all the difference. “It’s just nice to have some money in one’s pockets so that as a homeless man I don’t feel absolutely broke all the time.” James thanked all the people who have given him spare change, including mayoral candidate Charles Yancey, who had dropped a total of $7 into his cup.
James’s story compelled Ethan Whittington, a 27-year-old marketing accounts manager from Midlothian, Va., who has never been to Boston, to launch a fund for James at www.gofundme.com. The story struck Whittington, who saw a “great opportunity to honor someone who has shown that there are still honorable people out there.” Within the first four hours, Whittington’s campaign raised $3,152, which he plans to deliver to James. By week’s end, more than $100,000 had been donated.
“Let’s all chip in and help this man change his life,” Whittington wrote on the crowdfunding site. The pitch also sparked housing offers, including one from Cynthia Lasprogata who said James could come stay at a one-bedroom apartment in Greene, New York, “until he is back on his feet financially.” “I never ever in my wildest dreams imagined this,” Whittington said.
Whittington said he plans to personally visit James within the next two weeks and will either cut him a check or transfer the money into James’ bank account. He’s hoping to link the online campaign with James’ account so money can keep flowing in the years to come. After receiving the backpack from James, police notified mall security. They were later contacted by an employee at Best Buy, who said a customer had told them he had lost his backpack containing a large sum of money.
As he left the ceremony at police headquarters, James took deliberate steps, his eyes fixed on the floor. Then employees watching from behind their desks stood and applauded. His eyes widened, and he nodded his thanks. Outside the station, James was asked if there was anything he would like, anything at all. As he got into a police cruiser that would take him back to the shelter, he said, “No war.”