The Small Agency With a Big Voice

Alyssa Aguilera, a co-director of VOCAL-NY outside the group’s Fourth Avenue office in Brooklyn. | GAY CITY NEWS

Alyssa Aguilera, a co-director of VOCAL-NY outside the group’s Fourth Avenue office in Brooklyn. | GAY CITY NEWS

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | While most AIDS groups have remained silent as Governor Andrew Cuomo has declined to fully fund the Plan to End AIDS, VOCAL-NY has emerged as the principal antagonist of the governor as it repeatedly presses Cuomo to pay for the ambitious plan.

“He says all the time that it’s a priority of his, nothing gets done,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director at the agency. “If there is not pressure to move him, if there is not a strategic reason, he won’t move… He’s going to do what organizations make him.”

Most recently, the agency joined other housing groups in organizing a regular Wednesday protest outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office on Third Avenue to demand that he keep a promise to build 20,000 units of housing.

VOCAL-NY emerges as leading Cuomo critic on AIDS policy, housing

The Plan to End AIDS aims to reduce new HIV infections in New York from the current roughly 3,000 annually to 750 a year by 2020. The plan uses anti-HIV drugs in HIV-negative people to keep them uninfected and treats HIV-positive people so they are no longer infectious. Cuomo has consistently underfunded the plan.

The plan also relies on delivering services to some HIV-positive people, such as stable housing, nutrition, and transportation, because those services make it more likely that people will adhere to their anti-HIV medications and remain non-infectious.

In January, Cuomo said the state would spend $20 billion over five years to build 20,000 units of affordable housing, emergency shelter beds, and supportive housing, which combines housing with services. When the state budget was passed for the fiscal year that began on April 1, only 6,000 supportive housing units were funded.

The budget said that Cuomo would negotiate a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the state Senate and Assembly that would control how $1.9 billion for housing would be spent. AIDS groups lobbied to have the housing component of the Plan to End AIDS in the MOU. When the legislative session ended on June 17, the MOU was not completed and advocates learned that just $570 million would be spent on housing in the current fiscal year and just $150 million of that represented new money.

“We’re going to keep going,” Aguilera said during an interview at the agency’s Brooklyn offices. “It’s a lot of money and it’s a substantial amount of housing. Our strategy is to escalate.”

Prior to the start of the current state fiscal year, roughly 30 AIDS activists organized by VOCAL-NY seized a suite near Cuomo’s office in Albany and refused to leave until he committed to spending $70 million on the Plan to End AIDS in the current fiscal year. The activists occupied the suite for 24 hours and six were arrested.

A June 21 protest outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office organized by VOCAL-NY. | GAY CITY NEWS

A June 21 protest outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office organized by VOCAL-NY. | GAY CITY NEWS

Founded 17 years ago, VOCAL-NY employs 16 people full-time and another six part-time. With a current annual budget of $1.7 million, it is tiny compared to other AIDS and housing organizations that have budgets in the tens of millions, but VOCAL-NY has long been a leader in advocating for people with HIV along with those larger agencies. The agency has also worked on criminal justice reform issues.

“We’re known for our organizing and advocacy work,” Aguilera said. “The core of our work is community organizing, but we’re not just rabble rousers. We see organizing as a strategic approach to winning concrete policies that will improve the lives of our members.”

In addition to its organizing, the agency runs a syringe exchange program out of its offices on Fourth Avenue near Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and it distributes naloxone, which treats opioid overdose, a concern that has grown with the city health department recently reporting a 158 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths from 2010 to 2015.

With Cuomo, AIDS organizations face a dilemma. Sixty-three of them, including VOCAL-NY, were on the task force that created the Plan to End AIDS along with senior members of the Cuomo administration. The groups still need Cuomo for money and to implement policy. If they criticize Cuomo at all, their comments have been guarded and polite. VOCAL-NY is filling a needed role, though at least one large group, Housing Works, has shown increasing willingness to chastise the governor.

At a June 21 protest over the housing MOU held outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office, Andrew Coamey, the senior vice president who oversees construction, facilities, and housing at Housing Works, called on Cuomo to “show some honesty, show some integrity” and “keep your promises.”

Charles King, the chief executive at Housing Works, is credited with developing the Plan to End AIDS, along with Mark Harrington, the head of the Treatment Action Group, a policy organization. King, who has a long record of aggressive advocacy, has largely avoided criticizing Cuomo. King was not at the protest.

Aguilera said that the absence of other AIDS groups was not significant.

“I wouldn’t take that as much more than who has the capacity to turn out on short notice,” Aguilera said. “There’s definitely a relationship where we have different roles in the work.”