Mayor’s Proposed Budget Cuts Threaten AIDS/HIV “Epicenter” in Bronx

By Wanda Hellmund

Outside the hearing on budget cuts in City Hall

Outside the hearing on budget cuts in City Hall

AIDS is on the rise in the Bronx, the borough with the highest prevalence of HIV infections in the state. “We are the epicenter of the disease,” said Sean Barry, 28, co-director of New York City AIDS Housing (NYCAH).

And critics fear that the City’s new proposed budget cuts will make things even worse for the many Bronx residents suffering from the disease. Part of the cuts are programs by HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration), a government-run program providing benefits to people with HIV/AIDS.

Sojourner McCauley, Coordinator of Community Services at the Bronx Aids Services (BAS) said that the proposed budget cuts would have a drastic effect on BAS’s work. “We would have to cut back on case managers and discontinue many programs,” McCauley said. “With the result that the quality of life for many would drop, the engagement in medical services would drop and I fear that the numbers of HIV infected people would go up.”

According to McCauley, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed cuts will cause a proportional decrease in quality of life for the 45,000 people currently on HASA programs in New York.

The combination of poverty and HIV makes the disease ever more dangerous, because people with HIV are dependent for successful maintenance on a consistent program of medication and nutrition, which is easier to manage when they have a place to live. Wanda Hernandex, 47, board member of New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) and Bronx resident who has lived with Aids for 15 years says her living conditions have improved drastically because of HASA, which provides food stamps and access to better housing. “It’s a crutch people fall on – an important one,” Hernandez said.

But the New York City budget cuts, announced in January, put many of these programs in danger of being discontinued. The Mayor proposes cutting $6.5 million from the HASA programs this year, another $8 million over the next few years and an additional $8 million out of supportive housing programs. According to the NYCAH, these cuts would decrease the number of case workers by 35%, reduce supportive housing contracts, and cut funding for food and nutrition by 50%.

“We understand the need for budget cuts in times like these,” said Barry. “But what the mayor proposes is disproportionate. We would support a cut of $2 million. That’s where we have to draw a line in the sand.”

Councilwoman Annabel Palma, along with supporters from New York City AIDS Housing and Housing Works, both organizations dedicated to end the dual crisis of AIDS and homelessness, opposed the mayor’s budget cuts vocally on March 8th at City Hall.

“What the mayor proposes is simply illegal,” Diana Scholl from Housing Works said. “It is against the disability act.  It’s just really shortsighted.” If the cuts are implemented in July, as planned, she anticipates devastating consequences for the Bronx, not just for the individuals who live with the disease but for the community as a whole.

Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for the Bloomberg administration, responded in an email to BronxInk: “These reductions will not affect the City’s commitment to providing reasonable access to benefits and services to eligible clients of HASA.” Brancaccio did not specify what support under the new budget would look like.

Right now, 45,000 low-income New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS and their families rely on HASA for support and benefits, and to them the fear of losing that support is real.

James Dean, 57, a Brooklyn resident who has been living with the disease for ten years, is afraid of how the cuts might impact  him and the HIV community – or as he calls it his family.

“Where would homeless people with HIV go?” Dean asked. “They have no where else to turn to.”

For Dean, HASA helped him get back on his feet when no one else did. “My family didn’t have the means to help me financially,” he said.

He lost his business in building maintenance because his illness made it impossible for him to continue work. HASA helped him get an apartment, one of the biggest hurdles for many living with AIDS. Legally, landlords cannot let the illness affect their decision, but for many it is a real problem finding a place to stay.

Because of HASA, Dean is now living a good life despite his illness. But without HASA this might have not been the case, and he worries for people who are in the same situation he was in a few years ago.  “Without HASA, many people with AIDS are just going to be without support out on the streets,” Dean said.

HASA also offers mental-health services that could be cut altogether under the new budget, even though it is an important part of the support that people with AIDS need. To Dean and Hernandez, emotional support is as important as medical one. Hernandez and Dean like most people on HASA, do not have to worry about medication costs because they are covered by Medicaid. But with no guarantee of housing and support services, they face an increase in the emotional burden and stress that comes with the AIDS diagnosis.

According to a study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, the suicide rate amongst HIV-infected individuals is more than three times higher than rates of the general population.

“It used to be a death sentence,” Hernandez said. “But it doesn’t have to be. Things like HASA help you realize that. That’s why HASA is so important it can save lives.”

Hernandez and Dean have experienced first-hand how much the projects helped them live a good life with HIV. And now they want to make sure that others can too. “HASA helped me turn around my life for the better despite the disease,” Dean said. “I would hate see other people get denied access to that support.”

2 Responses to “Mayor’s Proposed Budget Cuts Threaten AIDS/HIV “Epicenter” in Bronx”

  1. avatar Christian says:

    How could you cut the only funding that has been keeping this battle at a stalemate. I believe that the mayor is being unfair and if his duaghter had it, maybe then he would be adding funds instead of cutting them. I pray that a third term didn’t mean a third strike.

  2. avatar Milagros Marrero says:

    I am just so tired of these budgets cuts that affect the communities in such a horrible way. I can understand that a cure was found for this disease and these cuts would not affect the population, but it has not and in the Bronx there are many people that need these services. I work in a non-profit org. and it is solely for the HIV population, it would be so great for Bloomberg to come into these agencies to see exactly how much these cuts would affect the communities.

    Please listen to my pleas as a citizen and a worker for this population.

    Thank you,
    Milagros Marrero


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