AIDS Housing Solutions Prove Elusive

City promises it has a plan, but New Yorkers with HIV languish in run-down hotels

Number 714 is a small shoebox of a room—about seven feet long and four feet wide—with just enough of a walkway between the twin-sized bed on the left and the chair and two desks on the right to allow a person to get to the window for some sunlight.

Ronnie Longmire, a 47-year-old man from Alabama who came to New York as a 13-year-old, has lived in the tiny space since late September.

“I’m residing here, not living,” he said, gesturing to the pale green walls he had to scrub clean of grime, the nonexistent closet, the sagging and broken twin bed covered with a thin faded sheet. “I would not call this living. It’s depressing to have to stay in a place like this.”

Longmire moved into this low-cost hotel only last month after a stint in the hospital for an eye injury. He is looking for a permanent apartment—he still has hope—but some of his neighbors have been here for years.

Manhattan’s Upper West Side Broadway Studios Hotel is meant to serve as a temporary solution to the permanent problem of housing homeless people who, like Longmire, have HIV or AIDS. The government pays 59 privately-owned buildings in the city, many of them single room occupancy hotels (SROs), between $60 and $100 per night for each room, where people living with AIDS or HIV (PWAs) stay while they search for permanent apartments.

Approximately 3,000 New Yorkers living with AIDS are living in the SROs, but the number of PWAs who come to the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) in need of services was just over 31,000 in July, the most recent month for which numbers are available. The case numbers have been rising steadily since January of 2002. HRA workers saw nearly 28,000 people in July who needed rental assistance or help with housing, though advocates in the field say the real number of PWAs who need this service is closer to 40,000.

For many, the city’s temporary housing becomes the last stop.

Six months ago, HRA abolished a rule that limited tenants to a 28-day stay in hotels like Broadway Studios. The Bloomberg administration had expected that the time would be sufficient for PWA clients to find an apartment, but this past spring voiced concern that some sick people were being shuffled from one hotel to another every month. But in fact, some residents have been living in these hotels, with 4 p.m. curfews and frequent burglaries, for years despite the rule, sometimes without any word from their caseworkers.

On September 29, John Ruscillo, the director of housing for HRA’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), spoke at a meeting of the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), an advocacy group and told SRO residents that changes are coming but would not detail the city plan under consideration.

The current system encourages HRA clients to take up permanent residence at the hotels, says Jennifer Flynn, NYCAHN’s director. Flynn and others who work on AIDS housing issues argue that overloaded caseworkers are not referring people who live in the SROs to the permanent housing that exists. A citywide housing shortage is also keeping the government from building more desperately needed permanent housing. For what it spends on temporary AIDS housing—up to $3,000 per month at some SROs—advocates say the city could move the people living there to permanent apartments, which cost no more than $998 per room a month, including utilities.

“The landlords don’t really care about these buildings,” Flynn said. “If someone’s not causing a lot of problems, why not let them stay?”

Flynn’s organization lobbies for better housing for people living with the disease. She said she is happy that the 28-day rule is gone but that HASA has no contracts with the hotels and thus no power to enforce any of its rules.

“[HASA says] they won’t send people to places that violated their policies, but the truth is that [the city] is lucky the hotels take them. The hotels have no contractual obligation to follow any of HASA’s rules, and they don’t,” said Flynn, who wants the government to sign contracts with hotel owners that can be terminated if the hotels violate the regulations.

The city mandates that living quarters for AIDS patients must be clean, have cooking facilities and refrigerators. Residents must have access to sanitary bathrooms and they can’t be above the second floor in a building without elevator access.

But tenants say the rules are rarely followed. Since he moved in two years ago, one HASA client said he has laid a wooden floor over the moldy and deteriorating tiles and made a toilet out of a bucket and a commode seat for the times, usually in the beginning of the month, when drug addicts shoot up in the bathroom he shares with four or five others.

“If I had to depend on [the management to fix things], to be honest, I’d be screwed,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation from the hotel management.

According to Gina Quattrochi, the executive director of Bailey House, which has provided AIDS housing and services for more than 20 years, New York has been dealing with “a chronic systemic problem of AIDS housing” for more than 12 years.

“We know that the census within commercial SROs is the highest it’s ever been, almost 3,000 people,” she said.

One Broadway Studios tenant, Charles Christmas, said he wants to leave the SRO but hasn’t spoken to his caseworker since he was approved for permanent housing in July. Although government caseworkers are supposed to check in on their clients regularly, they often don’t and many tenants are too sick or too tired to get to a pay phone to call them.

Advocates say the system is failing people like Christmas.

Shirlene Cooper, an HIV-positive organizer for NYCAHN, said caseworkers often neglect their clients, leaving them in temporary housing if they are too weak or meek to complain. Cooper said she herself has been through more than seven different city caseworkers since 1997.

“Sure [the hotels are] bad but we don’t have nothin’ else. What else we gonna do?” she said. “Some people don’t even have case managers, they just float around from worker to worker and nobody ever knows what their situation is.”

Flynn and Quattrochi believe the answer is streamlining the system so caseworkers refer people to permanent housing. Quattrochi, who has worked in the AIDS housing field since 1985, said HASA is shirking its duty to move people out of the temporary housing sites and into apartments.

“There shouldn’t be one family with AIDS in the commercial [hotels]. If there are ten, it’s ten too many,” she said.

Quattrochi said there is also a shortage of permanent housing for HIV/AID patients in the city. She and other advocates want the Bloomberg administration to build more permanent housing for people living with the disease.

“We need an additional 5,000 units immediately,” she said. “And in the next ten years we’ll need double or triple that amount, given that the epidemic continues to grow.”

Representatives at the mayor’s office did not return phone calls for comment. But Philip Reed, an HIV-positive and openly gay city councilman who represents portions of Upper Manhattan, where many temporary housing sites are located, said he thinks the city is doing “a fairly good job” of housing HIV/AIDS patients considering the housing crisis.

“It’s hard to separate out the issue of housing for [people living with HIV and AIDS],” said Reed, who serves as a member of the City Council’s health committee. “Almost every community feels impacted by the housing crisis. Obviously I think people with AIDS should get housing but they’re in the same boat that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are.”

Councilmembers Bill DeBlasio, who chairs the general welfare committee, and Christine Quinn, who also sits on the committee, did not make themselves available for comment. Staff members for both emphasized that the councilmembers meet regularly with HIV/AIDS advocates to work on problems; but no one indicated there was any specific Council initiative underway aimed at opening up opportunities for permanent PWA housing.

NYCAHN members and hotel tenants voiced their concerns to Ruscillo at the September 29 meeting. After agreeing to NYCAHN’s request that he meet with the group and the tenants it represents, Ruscillo heard complaints from people who had been living in temporary housing for more than three years.

“The hotels aren’t intended to be permanent housing for any of our clients. Only temporary,” Ruscillo told one resident who has been waiting to move out of his SRO for three years. “There shouldn’t be anyone waiting as long as that.”

Ruscillo rejected accusations that his agency’s caseworkers were not doing their jobs, telling the crowd of about 45 people that “you have to look at each situation on a case-by-case basis.” He insisted that the agency is working on new policies that will take care of many of the problems people are having with the system.

“There’s a lot of good work that was done [on the new proposals]. You’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Ruscillo said repeatedly, though he said he could not share the details of any of those proposals.

At the meeting, Flynn stressed the need for city contracts with temporary housing providers, but Ruscillo declined to comment. HRA and HASA officials did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment.

On November 10, both HRA’s John Ruscillo and City Councilman Philip Reed will attend a meeting of the Malibu Tenants Association at 230 W. 103rd Street at Broadway from 5 to 7 p.m.

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