November 13, 1999
Judge: NYC Punished AIDS
by The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) -- City officials tried to make an AIDS service group ineligible for millions of dollars in federal money because it had been critical of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a judge ruled.
In a ruling released Friday, U.S. District Judge Allen Schwartz found that city officials acted with ``retaliatory intent'' against Housing Works, a nonprofit group that operates two homes for homeless people with AIDS, mental illness and drug addiction.
Housing Works has been a relentless critic of Giuliani's policies on AIDS. It has blocked rush-hour traffic on bridges and tunnels, interrupted news conferences of city officials and conducted sit-ins in city offices.
Housing Works claimed the administration had initially given it a favorable rating, making it likely to qualify for grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency awards grants through a ranking system established by the city.
Housing Works said top city officials, angered by the group's stance against the mayor, downgraded it, effectively blocking $2.4 million to cover three years of operating expenses.
Schwartz issued an injunction ordering the city to restore the original rating. Schwartz also barred the city from punishing the group for its ``criticism of the Giuliani administration or its advocacy on behalf of persons with HIV or AIDS.''
The decision came less than two weeks after
a federal judge found Giuliani had violated the First Amendment
by withholding payments to the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an
exhibit the mayor deemed offensive.
Agency's Shock Tactics Bring Results, and Criticism
by GINGER THOMPSON, New York Times
November 1, 1999
In a warehouse basement with low ceilings and exposed, wheezing pipes that made it the perfect place to plot subversion, the leaders of Housing Works mapped out the group's next act of civil disobedience. Seated around a square conference table, smiling at the delight of playing naughty, they set the ambush for a Friday in November and timed it to disrupt Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's weekly cabinet meeting.
Agility, not size, is imperative to the success of the operation, said Charles King, a grizzled veteran of civil disobedience who is one of the two executive directors of Housing Works. He and a small strike force of about two dozen people would rush through the lobby of a certain city agency, into the elevators and up to the executive offices. Then they would handcuff themselves to desks and doorknobs before the guards could catch up.
That city agency was chosen, King said, because of a new policy that could cut welfare benefits to recipients who use drugs -- a sizable portion of the clients of Housing Works, an AIDS service organization. And he gave a reporter access to the weekly strategy meeting on the condition that the name of the agency not be disclosed. "There has to be an element of surprise," he said.
"I'm sure there are legal or legislative efforts that we could pursue," suggested King, another playfully devious smile emerging from his salt-and-pepper beard. "The other way is to do something a little more radical."
Radical advocacy -- blocking bridges, breaking up government news conferences, crashing celebrity birthday parties and having protesters chain themselves to the desks of high-level government officials -- is what Housing Works does like no other social service agency in New York.
And it has made enemies like no other. The group was founded in 1990 as an offshoot of Act Up, and carries on its tradition of explosive and emotionally wrenching demonstrations that have helped push the AIDS epidemic into the American consciousness and often shamed the government to action.
Still, the agency has become one of the city's largest AIDS service providers, with a budget of about $19 million and more than 2,000 clients, and it has won several important legal battles against Mayor Giuliani. Most recently, the state's highest court ruled on Oct. 19 that the Giuliani administration had created illegal obstacles to public assistance for people with H.I.V. or AIDS. The State Court of Appeals ordered the city to stop requiring people with H.I.V. or AIDS to submit to rigorous screening procedures routinely imposed on other applicants.
Despite the group's success at more sophisticated forms of advocacy, Housing Works, inspired by an eclectic and irreverent band of leaders, never moves too far from its roots.
The principal leaders -- a Yale-educated Baptist minister who was shunned by his family when he disclosed his homosexuality, and a social worker who has H.I.V. -- say they relate to their clients because at one time they were their clients: poor, powerless outcasts. And, they believe that often, the only way to make their voices heard is by making their voices heard.
In a protest against proposed cuts to welfare in April 1995, the group organized 250 people to block rush-hour traffic in the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown Tunnels and on the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. At President Clinton's 1996 birthday party in handcuff-linked protesters jumped on stage and began chanting against the welfare bill the president had recently signed.
"Part of the reason that we're players at all is because we can force the dialogue," said Keith Cylar, the other executive director of the agency. "It's not because of our money. It's because we are not afraid of a fight. We are not afraid to do whatever we need to do to take care of our people."
Critics, however, say that Housing Works is not above turning public advocacy into personal attacks, even against allies in the government and nonprofit agencies that provide similar services. And critics said that rather than allowing the kind of open debate that Housing Works wants from Giuliani, the agency sometimes engages in the same uncompromising, repressive tactics it attributes to the mayor.
Nancy Wackstein, the director of the Office of Homelessness under Mayor David N. Dinkins, recalled what happened to her when she described in a public forum the city's policy of putting homeless people with H.I.V. in city shelters instead of in separate housing. When she got home that night, she said, there were posters of her plastered on her Upper West Side block that labeled her an AIDS criminal, a practice the group often employs.
"I still have a visceral reaction when anyone mentions the name Housing Works," bristled Ms. Wackstein, who is now executive director of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a private charity. "It was the personal nature of the attacks that bothered me."
"Sometimes that kind of thing works," she added, "but more often than not, it backfires because you lose people who were or could have been allies."
Fran Reiter, a former deputy mayor to Giuliani, said that as she met with AIDS service organizations in the city to discuss a reorganization of the city's division of AIDS services, Housing Works was not invited. Its response was to crash one of her meetings accompanied by a New York 1 News crew and to accuse her of being an "AIDS criminal."
""If you want to be involved in policy-making," Ms. Reiter said, "there is a price for admission: respect, civilized behavior and a willingness to give and take."
Those who praised the group's work said that Housing Works is like a much-needed Black Panther Party among advocacy groups for people with AIDS.
"They push the envelope," said City Councilwoman Kathryn E. Freed of Manhattan, also once the target of a poster campaign. "But I think you always need groups who are willing to push the envelope."
Leaders of Housing Works offer no apologies for their actions. Life and death is not just a mantra to them and their clients, they say. It is reality.
"One of the things that is important for people to understand, and that bureaucrats and elected officials forget, is that the decisions they make from the safety of their offices affect people very personally," King said, a gray and sandy-brown pony tail hanging down his broad back. "You can't excuse your actions by saying, 'I'm just doing my job.' "
King, a 44-year-old minister, has a mild-mannered face that belies his strident, aggressive impulses.
Cylar, a 41-year-old social worker, tall with a runner's physique and long, dark dreadlocks, strives to be a watchdog on policies that harm members of minorities with H.I.V., and he also spends much of his time lobbying for Housing Works in Washington. "I'm the person that still gets invited to sit at the table," he said, laughing.
Handling many legal battles is Armen Merjian, senior staff lawyer, 35, who came to the agency from a prominent Wall Street law firm. Michael Kink, whose father was a storefront lawyer on the Southside of Chicago, handles lobbying efforts in Albany. And the woman who coordinates advocacy actions, like the coming demonstration at the city agency, is Terri Smith-Caronia, whose timid, bespectacled face is a natural mask for those times when she must slip unnoticed past security guards to case an agency being considered for a protest.
It was an assignment she was given once again at the recent weekly strategy meeting.
During the meeting, Kink took the floor and said that the city had begun a policy by which welfare recipients being treated for drug and alcohol abuse could lose their benefits if they tested positive for drugs after one month in treatment.
City officials have said that the policy is intended to help drug addicts become self-sufficient and productive, and they contend that taxpayer dollars should not be used to support persistent addicts.
To members of Housing Works, the new rules demonstrate the city's systematic contempt toward those who are most vulnerable. There was no way, Kink said, that the city would agree to meet with Housing Works to discuss the consequences of the policy. So, King said, the time had come to force a meeting.
After others nodded in agreement, he asked, "All right, what do we need?"
"Well I'll have to go and check out how many people it would take to fill the lobby," Ms. Smith-Caronia said. "And I want to see how big and fast the elevators are."
"Yeah," said Abraham Arce, a peer
counselor. "We don't want the guards to shut off the elevators
and trap people inside."