With the bitter November air turning his breath into swirling streams of vapor, Bill stamped down Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, his eyes wet with frustration and anger. Homeless, sick with HIV, and tired of his hours-long wait for emergency housing, Bill was returning from a useless trip to the midtown hotel where city AIDS workers had referred him. The city had been willing to pop $193 to house Bill for one night in a Quality Inn, but when he arrived, the hotel turned him away, saying payment for his stay had not been approved. With no place to go, Bill returned to the office that had sent him out in the first place.
Then he got lucky. The office, an intake center for the city's Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS), was still open, even though it was after 7 p.m. Workers arranged for a long-term placement in a single-room-occupancy hotel in another borough. And the SRO agreed to waive its 8 p.m. curfew, giving Bill, who asked that his real name not be used in this story, time to get there.
Bill's relative fortune was not the result of an enlightened policy of the Giuliani administration; it was due more to the literal vigilance of an ad hoc group of AIDS activists called DASIS Watch. Each day for the past several months, Watch members have stationed themselves at the largest of the city's 10 DASIS offices, at Eighth Avenue and 30th Street, where they remain until every person gets a housing assignment. At 4:30, when the city kicks the Watchers out of the office, they move to the sidewalks.
The Watch began in September, after it became clear that dozens of sick people went homeless nightly because DASIS had either referred them to faulty addresses, failed to pay for rooms, or sent workers home at 4:30, regardless of whether housing had been found for clients. That practice contradicts DASIS's own policy of placing clients in medically appropriate housing, as well as a 1999 court ruling that ordered the city to provide homeless people with AIDS housing on the same day they request it.
"I'm glad that we're doing this, but I'm sad that we have to," says DASIS Watcher Rosemarie Greene, the vice chair of Bailey House, who was taking her weekly turn when Bill ran into trouble. She and five others stayed outside in the 31-degree weather until a city van came to take the last batch of people to hotels for the night, at about 8 p.m. The Watch is made up of volunteers from private AIDS organizations across the city, who take turns about once a week. Jennifer Flynn of the AIDS Housing Network coordinates the Watch and is there most evenings.
News of DASIS's emergency housing crisis hit the papers in September. At City Council hearings, called by Brooklyn councilmember Stephen DiBrienza, officials from DASIS and the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA) downplayed the problem, blaming what they called an unexpected and as yet unexplained spike in demand, mistakes by frontline staffers, and clients themselves, saying some simply fail to show up at placements. They promised to investigate and provide the council with information. Last week, DiBrienza wrote to HRA commissioner Jason Turner complaining that he had received none of the promised information. Now, more than three months after troubles first surfaced, the problem remains, made even more perilous by winter's chill.
In October, for instance, DASIS Watch documented the case of a wheelchair-bound woman who was rejected at the Upper West Side hotel where she was sent; managers complained of delinquent HRA payments. In November, five DASIS clients said workers at a midtown SRO refused to house them, explaining that "no people with the virus were accepted." And last month, DASIS sent a man to a fourth-floor room in a Brooklyn walk-up hotel, even though a heart condition made it impossible for him to climb stairs. When he returned to the DASIS office, he was told to go back to the Brooklyn hotel because the situation had been remedied. When he arrived at the hotel again, however, he was still assigned to a fourth-floor room. Instead, he spent the night in the hospital.
HRA spokesperson Debra Sproles did not respond to repeated calls and written questions for this story.
"The situation has gotten better, but in reality that means instead of having 20 people who don't have a place to sleep, you have maybe two or three or five," says Councilmember Christine Quinn, whose district includes the Eighth Avenue center and who once paid for hotel rooms with her own credit card when DASIS failed to do so. "The only reason that more people are getting housed is because a few incredibly committed people stay at the DASIS office until everyone has a place to go, and then they go with them to the hotel to make sure they get in, if that's needed. That's what makes it work."
DASIS is clearly in a crisis that goes beyond its emergency housing program. On September 19, federal judge Sterling Johnson Jr. found the agency in total disarray, with such "devastating consequences" that he appointed a magistrate to oversee DASIS for three years. DASIS Watch coordinator Flynn says it's too early to say if the magistrate's oversight will be effective. The most tangible thing that HRA first deputy commissioner Mark Hoover has done to address the emergency housing problem is to keep staff at the Chelsea DASIS center on the job until placements are ensured rather than closing shop at 4:30 p.m.
While Quinn prompted that change with a phone call, she worries about people who are not getting housed until 11 p.m. Recently, DASIS has given more one-night than long-term housing, so a person with a late-night placement, especially to a far-flung borough, has to trek back to the DASIS office early the next morning in hopes of getting a bed for another night. "It's better to be placed at 11 at night than to be on the street," says Quinn. "But now they maybe spend 14 hours in a welfare center only to have to return the next day. How is that person going to get their life stabilized?"
DASIS Watcher Timothy Wearne, who works at Body Positive, says the very process of waiting for a housing assignment is trying, even more so considering that many DASIS clients are sick and should follow strict regimens, especially regarding eating and taking medicine. "People are trapped in this office for eight or nine or more hours and they can't leave for fear that they'll lose their placement," says Wearne. "They don't even leave to eat." He has arranged for an anonymous donor to supply box lunches for DASIS clients one day a week.
The DASIS Watch takes place only at the Eighth Avenue office, known as the Amsterdam center; there are nine others citywide. "The problems certainly have decreased at Amsterdam," says Quinn. "But the question is, are they getting worse at other places because there aren't people watching them every day?"
Wearne assumes his post wearing a "Human Rights Monitor" badge, and while the label sounds lofty, what the job really entails is checking mundane but essential details: Are the hotel addresses given to clients correct? (In September, 11 people were sent to an address that turned out to be a bank.) Is the reservation paid for? (Flynn phones ahead on her cellular to confirm.) Is there a need for troubleshooting peculiar situations, like the one a woman encountered late last month?
"Nobody don't care for me down at that place," she said, referring to the hotel where DASIS was sending her despite the fact that her past behavior put her on the hotel's unwelcome list. But DASIS Watcher Bob Kohler, perhaps the most regular volunteer on the team, walked the woman to the hotel and convinced the clerk to let her stay. Kohler says he's stayed as late as 1 a.m. to make sure every placement worked out.
The one night DASIS Watch was not there, on September 6, the office closed at 4:30. Watch volunteers say some clients were advised to spend the night in Penn Station. "If we're here, they go ahead and address the problems," says Joseph Capestany, a DASIS client and Watcher. "But if we're not here, they'd go back to what I call business as usual. They close up at 4:30 and tell you, 'Good luck.' "
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