Lawyers help homeless Brick widower who lost home in fire, then wife in car crash
BRICK — When a car struck and killed a 55-year-old woman Monday night on Route 70, it was the latest tragedy to befall a down-on-their-luck homeless couple who had lost their possessions in the recent Lakewood wildfire.
Police say Kathleen Winits was walking against the light and not in the crosswalk when she was struck by a driver who stopped to help.
Winits and her husband had escaped with little more than their lives when the fire on March 14 tore through their encampment behind the Lowe's on Cedarbridge Avenue, Minister Steven Brigham told New Jersey 101.5.
"During the fire they lost everything," Brigham, who met the couple when they lived at the Tent City he ran in Lakewood, said. "Their tent and everything burned completely to the ground. Right after the fire I put them up for a couple of nights in a hotel in Bricktown and they were doing very well."
Charity amid tragedy
The law firm of Port Authority Chairman Kevin O'Toole has agreed to pay for Winits' cremation, funeral and a month's hotel stay for the widower and one of his three daughters.
The firm already had been helping the family after hearing about the fire.
O'Toole told New Jersey 101.5 that he and law partner Thomas Scrivo, Christie's chief counsel from 2015 to 2017, paid for the couple's stay at the Brick Motor Inn.
"We actually had to bring cash down there because they wouldn't take a check and couldn't take a wire so one of our lawyers went down there the night before they were going to be evicted and paid for three or four weeks," O'Toole said.
After hearing about Kathleen's death, O'Toole said he reached out again to Brigham and offered to help in whatever way they could and are paying for another hotel stay.
"We're also going out with some of our staff and buying some clothes. We're going to go to Target and a couple other stores and buy a bunch of stuff and have it hand delivered Thursday or Friday," O'Toole said.
Hard work, tough living
Adam Winits, 59, rode his bike eight miles back and forth to work for a Lakewood contractor while Kathleen tended to the camp.
While appreciative of the temporary shelter, Adam was having difficulty coping with the aftermath of the fire, especially the loss of the tools he had acquired over the years.
"They'd been married for about 35 years and were a very close couple. Adam is taking it extremely hard and I don't know how Adam is going to function moving forward since they were such a close couple," Brigham said.
Brigham said Adam and Kathleen were living where they could afford given the cost of living in New Jersey.
"He really had a lot of pride carrying his own weight. With the amount of money he was making he couldn't afford the cost of housing in this area so Adam and his family decided to live in the tent," Brigham said.
Brigham said there are a lot of people in the same situation as Adam and Kathy.
"I think as a society we need to create some housing options for the lower income," Brigham said.
Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said the fire, which charred 170 acres, was intentionally set. No arrests have been made.
O'Toole, a former Republican lawmaker appointed as chairman of the Port Authority by Christie in 2017, said he and Scrivo wanted to use their law firm to do "good work."
"Some kid had his laptop stolen so we reach out. We hear stories like this and try to help out," O'Toole said. "We sent out $100,000 in donations to food banks in seven different states a lot in New York and New Jersey. Tom and I have always just done things for those who need help. We're in a position to help and we want to help."