HIV-Positive New Yorkers Protest Budget Cuts, Drug Screening Policy

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Activists upset with a new drug screening regulation for HIV-positive New Yorkers are going to protest the policy today by marching to a city commissioner and asking him to take a drug test. Y'know, it's one of those protests where the activists try to find the person they're mad at -- those are fun! If you find yourself feeling activist-y today, you can join HIV/AIDS organization Voices Of Community Advocates & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) this afternoon for a protest that the group says will bring together a hundred HIV-positive New Yorkers and allies.

This morning, Runnin' Scared caught up with one of the organizers to discuss what this was all about.

The group is pretty frustrated with the city -- for many reasons.

Let's start simple: budget cuts. The advocates are calling on the city to restore $10 million that Mayor Mike Bloomberg would eliminate in next year's budget. That would impact HIV/AIDS housing and nutrition programs.

The group is also targeting a policy that requires drug screening for any client of the city's HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) who applies for rental assistance or who has fallen behind on rent and is applying for a grant to help them stay in their home. The advocates say this drug testing is a waste of money, unnecessarily burdens residents, and unfairly targets HIV-positive residents who don't have drug problems.

That's why the protesters are attempting to find Robert Doar, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, which oversees HASA, and demand he take a drug test in response to the screening policy. Doar talked about the policy in a Huffington Post op-ed last year.

Finally, the group is advocating for a 30 percent rent cap affordable housing protection -- since currently this rate only covers those in supportive housing, not those living independently. (The group is also criticizing a policy that forces HASA clients to pay half of broker fees when they are trying to find housing -- though a HASA spokesperson told Runnin' Scared that HASA's SRO population continues to decrease -- currently below 800 persons -- which shows that clients are finding their own apartments).

We talked with VOCAL-NY chair of the board of directors Wanda Hernandez, who is a good example of someone impacted by these policies.

She's 49, lives in the Bronx, is a retired administrative assistant, and she is HIV-positive. She has to pay 70 percent of income for rent, because she lives independently, and when she's struggled to pay rent she has had to take drug tests, even though she said she has never had a drug problem.

"They're pushing clients to do something they shouldn't have to," she said of the drug screening. "To me, it's an invasion of privacy. I don't have a drug problem -- I have a poverty problem."

Advocates said they are worried the combined impact of drug screening, budget cuts, and a lack of accessible affordable housing rent caps could increase the number of homeless HIV-positive New Yorkers.

"This is a way of punishing the clients," Hernandez said. "We're hoping they reconsider...it's going to create a lot more homeless."

The city needs to prioritize HIV clients and help them find stable housing, she said. "Every cut that the HIV community gets hit by is always devastating."

VOCAL-NY's march begins at the lighthouse at the South Street Seaport (corner of Fulton St. and Water St.) at 12:30 and will arrive at HRA's main offices at 180 Water Street at 1 p.m.

An HRA spokesperson countered the criticism of the budget cuts, saying that HASA is funded at more than $400 million with an increase of 40 percent since Bloomberg took office. The HRA sent Runnin' Scared a statement this morning, saying, "HASA provides greater care and support to residents with clinical symptomatic HIV or AIDS than any other program in any other city in the country." The proposal streamlines services, it added.

In response to drug screening complaints, the spokesperson said, "By making compliance with referrals to substance abuse treatment programs a factor for increased rental assistance, HRA's initiative takes substance abuse seriously and promotes healthier outcomes for clients living with HIV or AIDS."

As per the call for a 30 percent rent cap, the HRA pointed to Bloomberg's statement supporting Gov. Paterson's veto of the bill, arguing that the legislation would be too costly. (At the time, the mayor said, "This is not the time for unfunded mandates, no matter how well-intentioned.")

[SamTLevin / @SamTLevin]

Go to Runnin' Scared for all our latest news coverage.

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