Dispatches from the fight against homelessness and AIDS
Posted by Rebecca Edmondson , January 31, 2014
Brooklyn, New York, during the January 21, 2014, snowstorm
It’s déjà vu all over again for NYC’s most needy and desperate: Housing Work’s Legal Department has learned that the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), a division of the NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA), is failing to provide same-day emergency-housing placement for its clients, in violation of the law. Since its founding in the 1980s, HASA has been tasked with providing access to essential benefits and social services needed by those living with AIDS or clinical/symptomatic HIV illness and their families.
The timing of these violations couldn’t be worse. New York City was hit with a foot of snow 10 days ago. Since then, local temperatures most days have peaked at around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Factoring in the wind chill, high daytime temperatures have ranged between -3 and -6 degrees, by and large, with the numbers dropping off after sunset. Those of us lucky enough to have homes and offices are turning up the heat, wearing multiple layers, staying inside as much as possible, scaling back on travel, and/or working remotely to avoid difficult outdoor commutes.
Homeless New Yorkers don’t have those options. What’s more, the number of people facing the possibility of being out on the streets is increasing. State- and citywide numbers of homeless people have skyrocketed in recent years, bucking national trends. New York State has seen a 24% increase in homelessness over the last six years. In New York City, under the Bloomberg Administration, the situation is even more extreme: From 2012–2013 alone, homelessness increased by 13%; current estimates have the total nightly NYC shelter population at levels not seen since the Depression, with the count exceeding 64,000, and of those, over 50,000 sleep nightly in NYC municipal shelters. Congregate shelter conditions are often deplorable and overcrowding is par for the course. (The daily trials and tribulations of the general New York homeless population and the worsening of the crisis have been featured in recent press in The Atlantic and The New York Times.)
For homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS, finding a viable bed for the night is more urgent and yet even more challenging. Because the severely immune-compromised are more likely to contract tuberculosis and other serious infections and are less capable of fighting illnesses off once contracted, the very environs in congregate shelters are potentially life-threatening. Being among those aforementioned 53,000 sleeping in city shelters amounts to a major health risk for those with AIDS, and thus, isn’t an option. For this very reason, HASA is required by law to offer its clients same-day emergency housing. When that need isn’t being met, as is the case right now, the only remaining option for the homeless living with AIDS is the street.
Today, as you bundle up and navigate around the slush, ice patches, snow drifts, and try to shield your face from the biting winds, imagine for a moment your only choice for where to sleep tonight is out on the street braving the elements. Now imagine the neediest, poorest subset of that dauntingly large and growing homeless population—those living with AIDS—and then contemplate that same choice. Imagine living each day with an already weakened immune system, and trying to maintain treatment that may require refrigeration, coordination with meals, and management of dosing, drug interactions, and side effects. The winter weather is so brutal, even those with the benefit of a healthy immune system are clearly at risk when they spend the night outside. For HASA clients who live with AIDS, a night out on the winter streets can be deadly.
Nevertheless, Housing Works lawyers have confirmed disturbing reports from numerous HASA clients requesting emergency housing: If this story sounds all too familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before, literally and legally. In 1999 in the lawsuit Hanna v. Turner, detailed here, Housing Works helped establish the right of homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS to same-day placement in emergency housing. Among other provisions, the Court specified that HASA clients cannot legally be sent congregate shelters, which do not meet the standard of being “medically appropriate” for those living with AIDS. And because the City officials continued to violate that landmark Supreme Court ruling, in 2001, we won a contempt motion, in which the City was ordered to pay fines to those denied housing and to immediately provide emergency housing to all such clients.
Fifteen years later, the NYC system is again failing the AIDS/HIV community and failing its neediest by turning homeless people living with AIDS onto the winter streets to fend for themselves. Housing Works lawyers meeting with clients have established that this problem is chronic, not isolated, meaning large numbers of New York’s most vulnerable are being sent out into the brutal winter nights without housing. City officials have been alerted to the problem, but they should never have let it come to this and must do everything in their powers to end this emergency at once; if they remain unresponsive, another contempt motion is possible.
Our new, progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, whose campaign cry was that he speaks for the 99%, has inherited this crisis situation from Mayor Bloomberg and his Administration. Mayor de Blasio now has the opportunity to make good on his campaign promises by not only resolving this pressing and immediate crisis but also by cleaning house at HASA and naming a new commission at HRA, a critical appointment he has yet to make.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
Here’s what you can do right here, right now:
• Call 212-788-3000 or 311, or tweet @NYCMayorsOffice and demand that Mayor de Blasio appoint a new commissioner at HRA who will ensure that HASA abides by the law—and the court order—and give its clients the same-day emergency housing they need. It shouldn’t take another lawsuit for the city to do what’s right.
• Donate* to Housing Works to support its life-saving services for homeless and low-income people living with HIV and AIDS*.
• Join Housing Works’ vibrant community of volunteers, who lend their time, dedication, and passion to many different roles within our organization.
Help us advocate for the rights of all people living with HIV/AIDS