And you thought your morning commute was rough.
HIV/AIDS activists from Voices Of Community Advocates & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) — an organization that advocates for the rights of HIV-positive New Yorkers — got up bright and early this to stakeout and protest Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar at his Brooklyn Heights home before he left for work.
And they found him.
Not satisfied with simply protesting outside his home, the group of 50 or so activists, armed with their vocal chords and noisemakers, followed him into the Clark Street 2/3 subway station and rode with him all the way to his office in lower Manhattan. Protesting him. The entire time.
You’re probably wondering at this point who the heck this dude is and why these activists are angry enough to gather in Brooklyn at 7:30 a.m. Fear not! Runnin’ Scared — regretfully unable to attend the protest — has some answers for you.
Doar, as the HRA commissioner, oversees the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration, or HASA, which supports the city’s HIV-positive population through housing, health care, and other services. The folks protesting him say they have a number of reasons they are angry with him and want to grab his attention any way they can. Earlier this month, VOCAL-NY rallied outside of Doar’s office to protest budget cuts and a drug screening policy for HASA clients applying for rental assistance who have fallen behind on rent. The group wants the city to restore $10 million that would be eliminated in budget cuts next year, and the advocates say this drug testing policy is a waste of money that unnecessarily burdens residents and unfairly targets HIV-positive residents who don’t have drug problems.
Their outrage was further fueled last week when the group got its hands on a staff letter written by Doar about an agency restructuring that would move HASA clients under a different program within the HRA. VOCAL-NY criticized the shift as untransparent and inappropriate, since it would put HIV-positive New Yorkers under the jurisdiction of a division that focuses on finding jobs. The sum total impact of all these cuts and policy shifts could lead to more HIV-positive New Yorkers living on the streets without the services they need, the advocates are charging.
Before we get to some of the colorful details from the protest (there were whistles! and a trombone!) — let us outline how the city has responded to all these criticisms.
With regards to budget cuts, an HRA spokesperson told Runnin’ Scared that HASA is funded at more than $400 million — an increase of 40% per client since the mayor took office, such that the agency is providing greater care and support to residents with clinical symptomatic HIV or AIDS than any other program in the country. In response to complaints about drug screening, the HRA spokesperson said that by making referrals to substance abuse treatment programs a factor for increased rental assistance, the HRA is taking substance abuse seriously and promoting healthier outcomes for clients. (The city has also noted that these practices are not drug screenings in the traditional sense, but rather processes by which HASA screens clients verbally and then may refer them to a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor within HASA, as needed).
In terms of the backlash last week with regards to a “leaked” internal document, HRA said that it is a common practice for city agencies to realign programs in order to maximize efficiency and organization of services. The reconfiguration will only help clients even further with the clinical aspects of their care, the spokesperson said. Essentially, the city’s stance is that this is not a policy change that is going to affect the way the HRA delivers services to these clients — it’s just a shift in the reporting structure (and there’s no lack of transparency here, the city says, because there is no change in policy affecting services and thus no need to officially report it to clients or the City Council).
Now that we got that out of the way (fair and balanced journalism on Runnin’ Scared, folks!), let’s get back to Mr. Doar’s incredibly awkward morning commute.
“We had whistles, a trombone, drums, and I think a tuba,” Jaron Benjamin, an HIV and AIDS community organizer with VOCAL-NY told Runnin’ Scared this afternoon. “We got there at 7:30 a.m.” (He said they didn’t want to scare children who hadn’t yet woken up for school).
By 8 a.m. the protesters were marching behind Doar and following him right into the subway — all the while taking photos and videos.
One of the protesters apparently told Doar that his policy decisions are going to leave more of them homeless, to which Doar responded: “You’re talking to the wrong guy,” according to Benjamin.
“As if somebody else is making policy decisions — he’s the commissioner of the HRA,” Benjamin told us.
It was a rare protest that really worked marvelously, Benjamin said. “All the HASA clients were angry at him the entire train ride — complaining about his policies. I’ve never seen anything like it before…Never in a million years has it worked like this where you get on the train with a target.”
He added, “I feel like our entire community of HIV/AIDS activist and people who receive services at HASA feel we are at a tipping point. There have been years and years of budget cuts that have been slowly eroding the safety net for people with AIDS. These last few rounds of policy changes in particular threaten to completely destroy that safety net.”
Today, an HRA spokesperson sent Runnin’ Scared a follow-up statement on the ruckus this morning, which reiterated some of the agency’s previous responses to the criticisms. The statement said, “Attention-seeking gimmicks do nothing to help HASA clients suffering from substance abuse. Funded at over $420 million HASA provides greater care and support to over 32,000 New Yorkers with HIV and AIDS than any other program in the US.”