Bitter allegations mark conflict between advocacy group and HIV-positive clients
In an extraordinary legal maneuver, the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV-AIDS (APICHA) has sued a group of former clients, former staffers, and their supporters who organized a series of protests last year charging that the agency’s services are inadequate.
“We want to protect our clients and our staff so the lawsuit is asking for an injunction blocking people coming into the building, to our facility, and from protesting on APICHA’s private property and protesting someplace else like when we co-sponsor an event,” said Kevin Huang-Cruz, the chair of APICHA’s board and a client at the agency.
The suit is also seeking $500,000 from the protest group, some of whom are living with AIDS and on disability. Huang-Cruz said the protests caused damage and cost staff time last year.
“It’s a legal tool,” he said, speaking of the request for damages. “It gives teeth to the injunction. There is no expectation that we are going to get it, but there are real damages that have been incurred because of their protests.”
The defendants have been battling with the agency for years and their three demonstrations last year came after months of complaining and meetings. In a three-hour interview with Gay City News last October, the protesters, dubbed the ad hoc committee, laid out their objections.
Don Kao, an ad hoc committee member and a former APICHA board member, said that some of the protesters were longtime clients who knew each other from a 1995 support group at the agency. Several members of that support group participated in developing a three-year strategic plan that said “board, staff, volunteers, and clients should have a say in the direction of the organization,” according to Kao.
When Therese R. Rodriguez joined the agency as executive director in 1997 that plan was ended, he said.
“She eliminated the multi-stakeholder model because she refused to be evaluated by anybody, but the board,” Kao said. “What could be considered an ideal organization got taken away from them.”
Rodriguez referred questions to Huang-Cruz, who said the “multi-stakeholder model” was still in place.
“We never abandoned it,” he said. “We have an annual client satisfaction survey which is a standard tool that is used in many AIDS service organizations. If the clients would fill it out, if they would participate in that, it would be effective.”
Rodriguez’s hiring marked the start of other changes that Huang-Cruz said were required for improved operations or by funders. The protesters charged those changes were often retaliation for their complaints.
The ad hoc committee members began complaining in earnest in 2001 and 2002, according to Kao. Relations appear to have grown worse in 2003, culminating in an August protest at APICHA.
Last year, nine clients were “graduated” from a program that included getting a $25 voucher for food every two weeks, according to Kao. That action followed the August protest, which targeted the agency’s Chinatown office.
“It’s clearly a repercussion for participating in the protest,” Kao said.
Shu-Wui Wu, APICHA’s associate director of client services, said the program was meant to teach clients how to budget and live independently. The funder required that a 12-month limit be placed on the program though clients can re-apply six months after graduating. There had been no time limits previously.
“This is not a food bank,” she said. “This is an educational project… Those people received services for more than two years before being graduated.”
Also in 2003, a peer-led support group was discontinued by the agency. A former client, who asked to be identified only as Alice, said the group was ended because many of the protesters were members.
“They look at us as very subversive,” she said. “I fully believe they cut it off because it’s subversive.”
Huang-Cruz said it was ended because the group was not accounting for its expenses properly.
“They were using it to do special events like going to the movies,” he said. “The funders would say ‘Look we gave you this money for nutrition and a movie isn’t nutrition.’ APICHA is beholden to its contracts. If we don’t fulfill the contracts appropriately we lose the money.”
In an indication of the long running ill will between the parties in this dispute, Huang-Cruz said that he and, later, his partner had run the group in the late 90s, but they were never invited back.
“We never got called because the people who were organizing it didn’t want us there,” he said. “It became a very exclusive clique of a very small number of clients.”
Three former clients, who asked that their names not be used, said that the turnover in case managers at the agency had made accessing services there extremely difficult. One client, who signed on with APICHA in 1994, said he has had nine or ten case managers, with four in the past two years.
“They just come and go,” he said.
The other two clients reported similar numbers over as many years.
Huang-Cruz said the turnover among case managers at APICHA was comparable to that at other AIDS groups. Currently the agency has only two case managers to serve 200 clients. It is supposed to have four, Huang-Cruz said.
The ad hoc committee members also charged that a client advisory committee was disbanded last year and they were not given applications to join the new committee.
Huang-Cruz responded with “That’s a lie” and said that the applications were mailed to every client and placed in the agency’s waiting room.
The committee members said that APICHA staff agreed at the time of the August protest to meet with dissidents in October, but when they appeared they were denied entry to the office, leading to another protest on October 10. At least three clients were terminated by the agency after that protest.
“This was a really difficult decision,” Huang-Cruz said. “The agency was, in my opinion, was overly lenient because there had been assaults on staff people, physical assaults.”
He said agency staff filed two reports with police in August. Fay Chiang, an ad hoc committee member, said no member of her group had been contacted by the police.
“The police came, but they never filed anything against us,” she said. “We never got anything.”
The ad hoc committee held a third protest at an October 15 APICHA fundraiser for which they had a police permit.