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Homeless Woman Takes on Government to Earn Back $100,000

With suitcases in arms reach, Wanda Witter, who is homeless, beds down in her sleeping spot outside the Au Bon Pain on 13th and G Street in Washington. Witter, 80, was recently attacked at the location, suffering a black eye and two stitches. For 20 years she's carried suitcases full of paperwork that she says proves that Social Security owes her $93,000. A lawyer is working with her to get her money back. Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via AP

For 20 years as she moved from homeless shelter to street corner in the nation's capital, Wanda Witter lugged three black suitcases filled with stacks of brown folders.

Inside the neatly organized folders were stacks of personal documents, including Social Security statements that ultimately helped her take on the government and claim nearly $100,000 in back-owed payments.

Holding on to her Social Security and pension paperwork throughout those years was the evidence that finally convinced the government that she had indeed been paid less than she deserved.

When a bank teller showed her she now has $99,999.99 deposited into her bank account, Witter could not believe it.

"It was a relief," she told NBC News. "I can't even fathom. I don't come from a family that has money and I still don't know how I will deal with money."

After 16 Years, Homeless D.C. Woman Wins Back $100,000 from Government 1:55

Witter's story began when she set her sights on Washington, D.C two decades ago to work as a paralegal after she lost her job as a machinist in New York.

Witter moved in with her daughter who lived in Colorado. After being turned down for several jobs she decided to enroll in a community college so she could one day work as a paralegal.

But that day never came.

Instead Witter decided to move to Washington, D.C. after hearing that "Washington was the place where all the lawyers were. That was the ideal place to look for a job."

She arrived in the nation's capital in 1996. Witter, then 58, moved into a shelter and continued applying for a paralegal position for the next three years. She only got one call back.

"I think there's a stigma attached to anyone who's lives in the shelters who is homeless because they already consider you to be somewhat of a failure," Witter said.

Divorced and miles away from her four daughters, Witter was alone and on the streets. She was afraid and more than a little bit angry at loosing her independence and freedom.

But Witter, who describes herself as "stubborn," said she knew she had to fight against the stigmas about the homeless.

When she turned 65 and became eligible to receive her Social Security benefits, she started filing paperwork to receive her money. She started receiving $900 a month before it was cut to $300.

"The next [check] I wrote void and sent a letter and said I am not accepting any more until we settle on an amount. Never heard a thing from them. They started sending more checks and they started cutting more and more," she said.

Witter began writing letters to Social Security, which often received no response.

When she did eventually hear from Social Security, they offered to categorize her as mentally ill in an effort to give her more money.

That stigma, Witter said, is one that she has fought as someone who is homeless.

"If you just give up and sit down, they consider you a mental case. 'She's depressed', that's one of the first words they apply to you," she said. "I'm angry at what has happened to me, but I am not depressed and I am not mentally ill."

Witter found herself living outside permanently in October of 2015. She camped out near an Au Bon Pain in downtown D.C. because she thought it was a safe space and bunked near other women living on the street.

But their makeshift communal living arrangement became a nightmare after she was attacked following a confrontation with a homeless man, she said. The incident left her with a bruised eye and two stitches.

The one person that believed she was owed money was a social worker who found that Witter's paperwork was so organized it served as the best piece of evidence. Attorney Daniella De La Piedra, who works for the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, took up her case this May.

"After I had my meeting with Ms. Witter, we had a meeting with Social Security. And when we went we went prepared with our documents and they were ready to help us resolve the situation," De La Piedra said.

Wanda Witter draws the blinds in her new apartment in Washington. Social workers from Street Sense helped her shop for her "micro apartment," an efficiency with no air conditioning. Linda Davidson / AP

Witter said her secret to reclaiming nearly $100,000 can be found within the folders she carried around all of those years. Witter always kept her paperwork with her at all times since she never trusted the people around her.

"I thought if it ever goes, I have nothing going for me, absolutely nothing," she said.

Witter has gone from having absolutely nothing to finally having a roof over her head. She moved into her own D.C. apartment last week.

Her next big expenses will be on tickets to visit her family and a trip to the dentist so she can smile once again without feeling ashamed.

"I don't smile because they wouldn't give me Medicaid," she said.

But for now, Witter has her sights on personalizing her first home in years to make it look more her own.

"I'm trying to figure out what kind of pieces I want, maybe one or two maybe three appropriate pieces for here and there," she said pointing to corners of the somewhat empty room. "I told my daughter, everything else is going to be held at a minimum. I don't want it looking cluttered, I don't want it looking junky, anything like that. I don't know, maybe that's asking too much, but that's the way I want it."