Governor Cuomo’s Life Or Death Decision On Supportive Housing

Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio took a major step in combating our city’s homelessness crisis, committing city resources to create 15,000 units of supportive housing.

For me, this was more than just a welcome announcement by a mayor I have been waiting to hear more from on our homelessness crisis. This was validation of a system of housing that permanently changed my life for the better. If it were not for supportive housing, I would not be alive today.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo deliberates over whether he will match the mayor’s commitment here in New York City, as well as commit funding for another 5,000 units of supportive housing across the state, he must understand that his decision has life and death consequences. I know the arguments about the money that will be saved and the homeless people who will be able to leave the streets and shelters. I know that just this past week a major study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that housing is an essential component to fighting the AIDS epidemic, and that even while the governor has committed to ending the epidemic in New York we still have far too many homeless people living with HIV. It is these questions of thousands of lives that I want the governor to consider as he makes his decision.

Before I lost everything, I was a city worker with a wife and a child. But I had a secret. I was gay.

At that time, the social stigma was so strong I tried to fight against who I was. I led a double life, as the good father and husband, while occasionally acting on my true desires.

Not being able to come out led to drug use to cover up the pain of my dual identities. Like for so many others in the mid-‘80s, the stigma and lack of health information or services led me to becoming HIV-positive through injection drug use when needle exchange was not yet available and details about AIDS were still emerging.

Coming out of the closest and becoming HIV-positive was too much. It sent me into a downward spiral of excessive drug use that led to me becoming homeless after splitting up with my wife, who is still a friend today.

Many nights I slept in abandoned buildings or shooting galleries where people would use drugs together, often looking out for one another. Other nights, ashamed, I slept on the floor of my mother’s house, still unable to tell her I was gay and so unable to bring my boyfriend along to provide him a safe place to sleep.

And I got sick. My T-cell count dropped as I was unable to find the stability to take my medication.

All that ended when I applied for housing at CAMBA, a supportive housing program with an angel for a caseworker named Eddie. Eddie did more than just find me a place to sleep. He got my Medicaid and food stamps turned back on after my chaotic lifestyle led me to getting cut off. He placed me in drug treatment and mental health programs. And he made sure I had an understanding ear to listen to me.

In six months, I was no longer using. In two years, my T-cell count jumped up and I became “undetectable,” meaning I was healthy and unable to transmit the virus to others. And I was able to come out to my family about who I really was: a father, a grandfather, and a proud, gay, black man.

But while I got stable, I lost touch with Jeff, my boyfriend at the time. He is still on the streets today, unless the worst has happened and he passed away, with few people noticing. Jeff is a good man. He deserves to be able to tell his story. Governor Cuomo, please remember Jeff, me, and the thousands of others like us, when you make your decision.

Wayne Starks is a board member of VOCAL New York and a resident of supportive housing. The supportive housing initiative he writes about is a separate issue from the $200 million in new state spending in support of housing and health care programs for people living with HIV and AIDS the governor is expected to announce on World AIDS Day.