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Playing Defense

Playing Defense


Derrick Mitchell was once drug-addicted and homeless, barely getting by on the streets of New York City. At a syringe exchange, he was introduced to New York's HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), a public program that connects low-income HIVers with medications, health services, job programs, food stamps, and housing. Mitchell wouldn't start utilizing the program until after a drug-related arrest, but he's thankful he did'he's now sober, healthy, and has his own apartment. 'I was able to have a place to live that was clean and safe and afforded me the time to sit back and assess what I was doing with my life,' Mitchell says. 'All that came from contact with HASA and my HASA worker.' The HASA program, as valuable as it is, is under attack by New York City bureaucrats, specifically Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wants to prune the agency's staff in an effort to balance the budget. Bloomberg's proposal included the elimination of one third of HASA's case managers; he unsuccessfully proposed the same cuts last year. HASA is just one of dozens of AIDS programs that have become vulnerable in these days of government penny-pinching. But a reprieve for New York's low-income HIV population has come from a federal judge who stopped the city from slicing HASA's payrolls. Judge Cheryl Pollak ruled in April that Bloomberg's proposal must be taken off the table. Attorneys for the HIV Law Project and Housing Works, a group that works to keep low-income people with HIV from living on the street, have been fighting for years to keep HASA from being winnowed away. But the organizations have law on their side. After Mayor Rudy Giuliani slashed HASA funding Housing Works filed suit in 1995. Finally, in 2001, a court ruled that the agency's reduced staff was failing their clients, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, and creating 'devastating consequences.' A federal court order was issued that demanded the agency maintain adequate case managers, specifically a ratio of 34 clients to one manager. After he was elected mayor in November 2001, Bloomberg appealed the court order to the Supreme Court, but the judges refused to hear the case and the order stood. Likely anticipating legal challenges to the order, New York's progressive-leaning city council passed a law that essentially said the same thing as the order'HASA must have enough case managers to uphold a 34-1 ratio. Bloomberg's more recent assaults on HASA started last year, when his budget proposal called for a chop of 246 case managers. Housing Works and the HIV Law Project filed suit and the cuts were withdrawn. This year's budget again called for slashing HASA's case managers, this time by 254. Housing Works went to court to stop the latest budget from going forward and were successful'the judge called the mayor's budget proposal 'illegal,' prompting applause in the Brooklyn courtroom. 'Our folks live with wasting, dementia, neuropathy, immobility,' says Armen Merjian, a senior staff attorney for Housing Works. Of the need for HASA, Merjian says, 'It's very difficult to go to 15 different disease-ridden waiting rooms to wait for different benefits; it's difficult to fill out paperwork.' Even though 'we're living in this starve-the-beast-and-break-the-social-contract age,' Merjian says he and Housing Works will continue fighting for low-income people with HIV.

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