Dispatches from the fight against homelessness and AIDS
Posted by Mikola De Roo , October 09, 2014
Housing Works community members gathered at NYC City Hall for a rally demanding expanded access to housing, food, and transportation for low-income people living with HIV, which will enable our communities to get to an AIDS-FREE New York by 2020. Photos: Valerie Reyes-Jimenez.
AIDS-FREE NY 2020 Depends on Expanding Housing, Food & Other Basic Benefits
On October 9, 2014, Housing Works joined VOCAL-NY and other HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ, and homeless youth advocates on the steps of City Hall to promote a statewide campaign for expanded access to housing, food, and transportation for low-income people living with HIV, which will enable our communities to move toward our shared vision of ending AIDS as an epidemic in New York State by 2020.
The rally’s focus was on the need to expand lifesaving rental assistance, nutrition, and transportation benefits to all poor New Yorkers living with HIV—hence, the “End Poverty, End Homelessness, End AIDS” slogan that attendees chanted and that appeared on posters and banners. Current public policy denies access to these benefits because recipients must meet an 1980s AIDS Institute definition of AIDS or “clinical/symptomatic HIV infection.” That prerequisite is clearly out of step with the landscape of today when it comes to current HIV treatment guidance and the day-to-day realities of living with HIV in 2014. In order to qualify for this kind of public assistance, poor New Yorkers living with HIV—those who are most vulnerable to begin with—need to get sick in order to get the public support they need to afford housing, food, and transportation, all of which are necessary to achieve and maintain optimal health. Or they need to choose between housing, food, transportation, and health care because they can’t afford all these essentials. This public policy runs in complete contradiction with current HIV treatment guidance and remains a long-standing, decades-old significant obstacle standing in the way of reaching our shared goal to end AIDS for every community.
Rally attendees included leaders, staff, and clients/members from numerous community organizations, such as VOCAL-NY, Housing Works, GMHC, and others. A big turnout also came from government officials, including New York State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, NYS Senator Ruth Hassel-Thompson, NYS Senator Brad Hoylman, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Council Member Cory Johnson, New York City Council Member Stephen Levin, and NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.
HW Housing SVP Coamey on NYC HIV Policy: “Get Out of 1983, Get Out of 1985, Get Out of 1989, and Join Us in 2014”
In his rousing speech to the crowd, Housing Works SVP of Housing Andrew Coamey, who has been part of Housing Works for decades, recalled those early dark days of AIDS in the 1980s. Hearkening back to 1989, when he worked as a provisional case manager for the Division of AIDS Services (DAS), the government agency now called HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration), Coamey offered a unique perspective on the issues at hand and how and why current New York policy needs to change:
“My job [at DAS in 1989] was to help people stay housed. People who came were losing their apartments because they had exhausted every financial resource they had to pay their rent. What we found was, I had to turn probably 2 of every 3 of the [HIV-positive] people who came to me for assistance away because they did not have an AIDS diagnosis. So people who could have stayed in their homes and avoided homelessness wound up on the streets—and I can tell you, back then, inevitably died. My clients died before I could house them. I said, that ain’t right, and so I found this wonderful organization Housing Works, where I’ve spent most of my adult life. Housing Works was founded on the premise that anyone, regardless of their situation in life, regardless if they use drugs, regardless if they have mental illness, regardless if they’re transgender, regardless of any of those things, deserves a decent, safe, affordable place to live, where they can not only live, they can thrive.
“In the 1990s I was in charge of our intake department….and the same nonsense happened over and over and over again. People would come in, they were sleeping on the trains, the subways….And their M11Qs [the required form doctors needed to complete for patients who need public assistance] would say ‘HIV-positive, asymptomatic.’ And I would say, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you. You gotta go back to the shelter, I can give you a token and you can sleep on the subway, and I can give you half of my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich….But come back tomorrow and let’s see what we can do.’
“Something is wrong with this that we are living in 1989 when it’s 2014. So what we need is a concerted effort to realize that what is driving this epidemic is…access to the basic food, nutrition, and shelter. People with HIV need to [be able to] engage with those services that are available to them. So that’s what we’re doing here today. We’re gathered here today to say, ‘Get out of 1983, get out of 1985, get out of 1989, and join us in 2014.’ We gotta make sure that the door isn’t just open to this small group of people that have that piece of paper that says ‘I have an AIDS diagnosis,’ or ‘I’m HIV-symptomatic.’ We need to open that door for every single one of our brothers and sisters living with HIV in New York.“
HW Client-Turned-Staffer Jenkins: Basic Benefits are the Difference Between “Barely Surviving” & Living “Life to the Fullest”
For Housing Works client-turned-staff member Reggie Jenkins, who attended the rally along with other Housing Works staff, clients, and volunteers, the dire need for a policy change hit home in a similarly personal way, too, even though his story with HIV began 20 years after the landscape Coamey described:
“I came to Housing Works and to New York City in 2010 as a newly diagnosed, HIV-positive black MSM searching for stability with my housing and health care needs. Through the programs and services at Housing Works, I quickly found it within a six-month time period. Not only did I become undetectable [i.e. undetectable levels of HIV in the blood, which promotes optimal health for HIV-positive people and prevents the virus from spreading], but I also enrolled in Housing Works’ Job training Program, which I quickly completed and used to obtain employment within the agency…. As someone who’s been living with HIV for the last four and a half years, I can offer the on-the-ground, personal perspective, why and how this policy stuff matters in day-to-day life. I can tell you first hand, without the kind of benefits being talked about today, there’s not enough money to go around for the basics…and I do mean basics!
“I’ve had to choose between my rent and my health care. Between paying for a MetroCard and buying lunch. Having a safe home-base that’s mine and that isn’t bankrupting me keeps my life stable. It means I have a support network of people near where I live, family, friends, and neighbors to help me get to my doctor’s office if needed or my case manager. All that gives me enough help and enough of a routine that I can keep track of my meds and stay on them. No one is more invested in staying healthy that I am. Every time my doctor comes back and says my blood-work says UNDETECTABLE, it means HIV is not controlling my life or my health and that’s a great day to me. I don’t want to miss taking my meds, or getting blood-work done because I’m spending all my time trying to find a place to sleep every night or because after rent I’m left with $9.95 a day for food, transit, and everything else. I don’t want to end up in the ER because I’m too broke to solve a small health issue when it’s small; that’s what makes it turn into a bigger issue. And I don’t want to have to get sick and risk my health or my life in order to get benefits I need to survive. The kind of help we’re asking for today is the difference between me just barely surviving with HIV from day to day and me living with HIV and still living my life to the fullest. In the past I may have been bruised but I am not broken.”
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