Last Friday afternoon, members and advocates for VOCAL-NY marched to Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar’s office building on Church Street in lower Manhattan.
The organization, which advocates for low-income New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS, met at Water and John streets and proceeded to march south, accompanied by a police caravan, to Church Street, where they made a right and alarmed workers who were outside taking lunch breaks.
After making their way to the building, the group began to shout for Doar’s presence. They marched around in an oval and were eventually met by the presence of someone from Doar’s camp.
Jaron Benjamin, an HIV/AIDS community organizer for VOCAL-NY, handed HRA Assistant Deputy Commissioner Dexter A. Freeman a list of demands that was also obtained by the AmNews.
“We demand an end to HASA [HIV/AIDS Services Administration] policies that keep people living with AIDS in shelters,” read the beginning of the list.
Some of the policies named include cutting broker’s fee payments for homeless HASA clients in half, denying housing assistance to homeless people living with AIDS who don’t participate in mandatory drug treatment, denying HASA clients affordable housing and a 30 percent rent cap and cutting AIDS housing and nutrition programs at HASA by $10 million.
HASA is a division of the Human Resources Administration.
As the AmNews reported last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 wouldn’t restore funding for housing, nutrition and prevention services for homeless and low-income people living with HIV/AIDS.
According to VOCAL-NY, because the City Council already made one-time restorations in the fiscal year 2012-enacted budget or the cuts were enacted through midyear budget modifications, they don’t appear in the mayor’s preliminary fiscal year 2013 budget. Also, most of the cuts will occur within HASA.
The AmNews contacted the HRA office for comment, but as of press time, there was no response.
Regardless, if Benjamin has his way, Doar will speak before his constituents soon enough.
“We’re serious about our public meeting,” said Benjamin to the AmNews. “We want a meeting with the commissioner face to face so he can explain himself and we can really find out what’s going on. We need him to talk directly to people living with HIV and AIDS and not present the outline to his whole policy on the Huffington Post. That’s the only thing we know about this new drug policy he’s implementing; this op-ed on the Huffington Post. That’s not good government.”
“HASA clients who have suffered from a history of substance abuse are impeded from realizing their goal of healthier living.
To support clients on the road to recovery, HASA now uses a screening tool to determine if the client should be referred to a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor,” wrote Doar in a Huffington Post piece titled “World AIDS Day 2011: New York’s Continued Battle” in late November.
“HASA clients who choose to not participate in substance abuse treatment based on an assessment’s recommendation are faced with a choice: They will be offered a supportive housing placement or they could lose the ability to receive above-enhanced rental assistance or be denied their request for rent arrears payments.”
Benjamin accused the commissioner of unfairly placing the burden on the suffering instead of those responsible for the policy.
“Commissioner Doar just wants to do a bait and switch,” he said. “He wants to put the blame on the clients and say, ‘The reason you can’t afford your rent is because you’re a drug addict.’ That’s not the case. This is about housing. Health care is housing right now for those living with HIV and AIDS who need housing to take care of their rotation.”
When asked if activists should hold out hope for when Bloomberg leaves office in 2013, Benjamin believed that regardless of who’s in office, they have to make the push to achieve their political and social goals.
For many of the people he works with, they cannot wait.
“The sad thing is that the policies we’re fighting here, for some people, it’s life and death. It’s very easy for someone with HIV/AIDS to die in the shelter system. I’ve lost members along the way and it hurts me. The people can’t wait.”