New York Post - January 30, 2000

Hundreds of seriously ill AIDS patients who rely on the city Human Resources Administration for help getting food, medicine and housing are being left in the lurch.

Patients can't reach their caseworkers because the city employees have no telephones.

Eight to 10 caseworkers in the HRA's Bergen Center on West 147th Street in the South Bronx have been laboring without phones for about six months, sources told The Post.

The workers were shifted into a small, disconnected office because supervisors said there was no room for them in a larger space where dozens more people work, two-to-a-phone, insiders said.

Since then, HRA has refused repeated pleas by the Division of AIDS Services caseworkers to install telephones so they can do their jobs.

Each of the workers is responsible for 35 to 40 patients who often face medical emergencies or threats of eviction but can't get through to the people who are supposed to help them, HRA employees and social service providers said.

One AIDS patient, Charles Rivera, 30, said he has an HRA caseworker with a shared phone.

"It's busy all the time," he said. "In order for me to get in contact with them, I've got to spend a few hours."

Sometimes he drags himself to the office.

"One day I was there at 8 in the morning, and I came out at 5 in the afternoon. At that time I was very sick," he said.

"It's terrible," said a telephone-deprived caseworker, who said she has 40 clients she's required to stay in touch with.

She said she tries to deliver emergency checks to people in distress, but can't get to more than a few. The others struggle against eviction or wind up cut off from food stamps until they can get recertified, the caseworker said.

Asked why the phones are not there, she shrugged and said, "It's HRA."

That's the same agency that recently managed to scrounge up more than $3.8 million to hire the Hudson Institute, a right-wing
think-tank that HRA Commissioner Jason Turner once worked for, to advise it on how to get fathers to stay with their impoverished families.

When The Post dropped by the cramped Bronx AIDS office last week, two caseworkers sat at desks piled high with case files -- but with no phones or typewriters. Neither worker would talk to a reporter.

Sources said the desperate caseworkers often walk across the hall and plead to use the phones in another AIDS Services office.

But there, every two workers share a phone, so they usually can't loan it out either, said one insider.

And those workers also are hard to get through to, advocates said. "Sometimes we try to reach them, and it's impossible," said Jenny Polanco, a social worker at the nonprofit United Bronx Parents.

"I have a client who requested an apartment in July, and he got the apartment just now. He was living in friends' houses, a month here, a month there," she said.

HRA did not return three calls seeking comment, but Ronald Johnson, associate director of Gay Men's Health Crisis, says the agency has been aware of the problem for months.


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