Hundreds Protest AIDS Budget Cuts

By BENJAMIN RYAN | Vitriolic, no-holds-barred AIDS activism has returned to New York City. Following a passionate rally against the Bloomberg administration’s proposed AIDS budget cuts and changes to the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) that drew 200 demonstrators to City Hall May 14, a group of several dozen AIDS advocates committed civil disobedience by blocking the building’s front doors and were willingly arrested. The demonstrators, animated throughout and at times shouting deafening chants, expressed outrage over the mayor’s wish to privatize agency services and the fear that the budget cuts would lead to HASA’s complete dismantling. They lambasted his plans to push HASA clients into welfare-to-work programs, and to move the Mayor’s Office of AIDS Policy Coordination into the Department of Health and Mental Services. And, in what has become a common refrain against a mayor with unfavorable poll numbers that are unprecedented, the activists said Michael Bloomberg’s extraordinary personal wealth keeps him out of touch with the needs of poor New Yorkers. Before 30 of the demonstrators were arrested by a swarm of police when they locked arms in front of City Hall’s doors, they led the crowd in chanting, “Bloomberg, billionaire, people with AIDS, he don’t care.” A division of the Human Resources Administration (HRA), HASA provides an array of welfare aid, including housing assistance, to approximately 30,000 lower-income New Yorkers with AIDS, as well as 15,000 of their family members. A Gay City News special investigation last summer found that the agency wastes millions of taxpayer dollars on exorbitant rents to house clients in “medically inappropriate” single room occupancy hotels, and that HASA suffers from critical mismanagement that endangers the health and well being of its most needy clients. ( During the past seven months, HRA Commissioner Verna Eggleston has promised to produce a blueprint for a total restructuring of HASA, an agency which she told the City Council last November she inherited in a broken state. Local AIDS advocates have pushed to be a part of this restructuring process and, for a time, some felt their voices were being heard in planning meetings with representatives from HRA and the Mayor’s Office on AIDS Policy. But now many argue that these meetings were false fronts and that the Bloomberg administration was all along acting in the utmost secrecy and without community input, at times lying outright to the advocates about their pending plans to change HASA. “This administration has said they would engage the HIV/AIDS community about any changes that would happen in the budget and in service delivery in this city,” Joey Pressley, executive director of the New York AIDS Coalition, told the demonstrators. “Well, you know what? That’s not happening. The mayor has basically lied to our community.” According to Pressley and other leading AIDS advocates, the truth of Bloomberg’s intentions has only trickled out in public announcements over the past month. In only the most recent example of what critics charge is the administration’s bad faith, advocates said that when they met with Gary Sutnick from the Office of AIDS Friday May 9, he never mentioned plans to move HASA clients into the welfare-to-work programs. But they learned about the matter the next day in The New York Times. Bloomberg representatives did not return several phone calls from Gay City News. In his April 15 report outlining 2004 budget cuts, Bloomberg proposed two plans for restructuring HASA. In his less-severe budget, the city would contract out the jobs of 29 case managers to community-based organizations, thus beginning the privatization of the system. This would yield a savings of $1 million in tax levy funds. Armen Merjian, staff attorney at Housing Works, which provides legal services to people with HIV/AIDS, questioned why the city would endeavor to privatize such a large and important city function for such small potential savings. In the mayor’s “doomsday plan,” the city would eliminate all city funds for case management at a savings of nearly $19 million and would reduce by 10 percent payments for permanent housing for 4,000 clients, saving about $5 million. Advocates fear that some of the clients in permanent housing will end up on the streets because of the cuts. The doomsday proposal would require a change in Local Law 49, which was created in 1997 and strictly guarantees the rights of HASA clients and mandates specific case manager-to-client ratios. Numerous class action lawsuits waged against HRA by Housing Works have all come down against the city, strengthening and clarifying the law. Changing the law could roll back the protections afforded HASA clients by the Housing Works wins. In his first ever speech on AIDS, given on March 13, the mayor indicated his desire to amend the law, which he claimed was out of date for today’s needs. Despite the fact that such a change would need to pass the City Council, Christine Quinn, the out lesbian Democrat who is chair of the Council’s health committee says she has never been consulted about the matter. In a telephone interview May 13, Quinn said she has expressed her concern over the proposed changes to Bloomberg officials, informing them that they should consult with her about their plans as soon as possible. “And as far as I can tell, that concern has fallen on deaf ears, because I’ve heard nothing,” she said. Quinn said that the proposed changes to Local Law 49 “really erode the core mission of HASA and begin the deterioration and elimination of HASA. And that’s not something I can support and something that I think will put people living with AIDS in this city in significant jeopardy.” At the rally, Councilmember Philip Reed, the HIV-positive representative from Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx, told the crowd, “You have every right in the world to be upset and probably skeptical,” about the mayor’s proposed changes. Reed echoed the critique made by others that the process was marred by secretiveness. Charles King, Housing Works’ co-president, was less diplomatic, shouting to the crowd, “I’m not skeptical about what the mayor’s trying to do. I don’t need to discuss this anymore. I know what the mayor is up to. This mayor is out to dismantle and destroy AIDS services in New York City.” King went on to list various hardships of poverty which “our billionaire mayor” doesn’t comprehend: living on the street, waiting for social security checks, being cut off Medicaid.” A Housing Works press release claimed that Bloomberg is essentially trying to do away with the Office of AIDS Policy by moving it from the mayor’s office into the Department of Health, which the group charged would eliminate meaningful oversight of the city’s AIDS services. The release pointed to another example of the apparent campaign of misinformation, noting Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden had previously “vehemently denied to the AIDS community that such a ‘merger’ would take place.” The release also complained that Bloomberg’s budget failed to include the $5 million City Council initiative in earlier budgets for HIV prevention and care services targeting communities of color. HASA client Anthony Howell told Gay City News about his fear that the mayor’s plan to move HASA clients into work programs will spoil his chances at improving his market skills by obtaining an advanced degree. Howell receives rental subsidies from the agency as well as income from Social Security Disability while he pursues a masters in African American and museum studies from NYU. “Yes, there are those of us who should go to work and could work,” he acknowledged. “But there are many of us who won’t be able to work. I think we need to work on skills building, not rushing people into jobs.” In a telephone interview prior to the rally, Jennifer Flynn, the executive director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network who was among those arrested, expressed sadness and frustration over dashed hopes that a new mayoral administration would bring positive change as HASA. “I felt so duped,” she said of being put on what she said amounted to a puppet task force to propose restructuring of HASA while the mayor’s office acted entirely on its own. Having worked in AIDS advocacy since 1995, Flynn said, “This is the worst attack on people with AIDS in New York City that I’ve ever seen.” Another HASA client, Shirlene Cooper, who also receives rental subsidies, said she feared the worst about how the budget cuts would affect her. “I’m afraid I’ll become homeless and I won’t be able to receive my medication and I’ll die,” she said. “It’s a miracle that I’m standing in front of you right now. But if I stand around and let people like Mayor Bloomberg cut out these services, where will I be? In a box like everybody else.” READER SERVICES |