AIDS housing activists protest a city drug-screening policy

aids-housing-activists-protest-city-drug-screening-policy
Protest organized by Vocal-NY. (Elizabeth Gonzalez)
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The protesters wanted a restoration of millions of dollars in city budget cuts that would affect housing and health care aid to H.I.V.-positive New Yorkers. They also wanted the city to reverse a policy mandating drug testing for applicants for rental assistance from H.I.V./AIDS Services Administration (HASA).

Reduced to a chant at a demonstration in front of the offices of HASA on Friday, as the protesters called on Commissioner Robert Doar to change the policy, the demands were rendered as: “What do we want? AIDS Housing. When do we want it? Now.”

“Instead of getting tough on homelessness, you’re getting tough on people with AIDS,” shouted Bobby Tolbert, a Vocal-NY board member, as circling protestors repeated after him. “Commissioner Doar, that is unacceptable.”

The declared mission of Vocal-NY, which organized the demonstration, is to help low-income New Yorkers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Most of the board members are themselves affected by the disease, including Tolbert.

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“I had a long fight with addiction,” said Tolbert.

He said that although he has “outgrown the supportive system” and therefore the policy does not affect him, “it affects my colleagues.”

He feels the drug-screening mandate will alienate long-term drug users, and push them even farther away from recovery.

“This is borderline unconstitutional, it infringes on our rights,” he said. “After 30 years you would think the stigma would be over. They are perpetuating the stigma by adding mandates.”

The new rule would affect about 32,000-45,000 people currently receiving services from HASA, according to Vocal-NY. Its effects would be compounded by cuts to the amount of money the city puts toward housing and nutrition programs, and increases to the rent that aid recipients have to pay, to more than 30 percent of their monthly income.

“Any budget cuts would be absolutely devastating,” said Helen Busby, representing the Legal Aid Society at the protest. “People are already having trouble with housing.”

Busby also said that long-term housing is actually less expensive than other options, like S.R.O.s, that the cutbacks would push people toward. She said that keeping people in long-term housing actually promotes health because it allows them to feel more secure, follow treatments, and schedule doctor's appointments, which are very hard to keep if the people in need of care are living in a homeless shelter.

“Nobody has a problem with the referrals, but it is counterintuitive because it is going to cost more,” she said, adding that “the last place you want to send people” are to SROs.

Screenings are already taking place. Shirlene Cooper, who addressed the crowd at the protest, said she had been through the procedure.

“I am a grandma living with AIDS. I am too old to shake what your mama gave you, to go out there to get the other half,” she said to the crowd, in reference to higher housing rates. “I am a fifteen-year recovering addict. I should not be harassed about my sobriety.” Ms. Cooper has received help from HASA since 1997 and said she was completely offended to be forced to take the test for re-certification.

Vocal-NY will host a meeting this week to discuss the next steps that need be taken.

“Maybe it means us taking over a couple of offices,” said Jaron Benjamin, an organizer.

Asked what he meant by “taking over” offices, he said, “We are willing to go to any lengths.”