Homeless New Yorkers Win Harm Reduction Victories

by Suzy Subways

APRIL 2007 • Issue 4

Even without a visible conflict or catastrophe, the everyday devastation of poverty can easily lead to the disaster of homelessness for individuals and families. And like other forms of displacement, homelessness increases HIV risk. “We see housing as a form of HIV prevention,” says Jennifer Flynn, director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN). “If you’re housed, you’re more likely and able to take care of yourself and others, which lowers the risk of HIV transmission.”

NYCAHN activist Juan Santos, 76, wore this hat of many condoms throughout the fall 2005 Campaign to End AIDS march from New York to Washington DC.

NYCAHN’s HASA for All campaign is fighting to get the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) to guarantee non-medical HIV services such as housing, transportation, and nutritional support to all low-income HIV-positive New Yorkers. Because of activist pressure, the city currently guarantees these services to people with an AIDS diagnosis.

Along the way, activists have won some impressive victories—condoms and HIV educators in the shelters, which serve roughly 35,000 people every night. And now, clean syringes for safer drug injection. “They just trained all the shelter medical directors on overdose prevention and how to dispose of [used] syringes,” says Flynn. “When people leave, they’re given clean syringes. The shelters are acting as clean needle distribution sites. By the end of the year, every shelter will have that.”

How did homeless and low-income activists at NYCAHN and allied organizations win these HIV prevention advances? Flynn says activists started by demanding that the city release statistics about the health of the homeless. Two years of direct action and advocacy later—after the city council passed a law requiring the health department to release the data and further foot-dragging by the health department—the stats were finally released in 2005. They showed that 11% of deaths in the shelter system were AIDS-related. Activists targeted the city council again, hearings were held, and New York City hired a former director of CitiWide Harm Reduction to implement serious changes in the shelters.

But condoms and syringes in the shelters are piecemeal victories, Flynn says. The real goal is HASA for All, so that nobody with HIV will need to stay in shelters in the first place. To support this effort, whether or not you live in New York, call City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at (212) 788-7210 and ask her to pass the HASA for All legislation. Organizations, low-income HIV-positive New Yorkers, and their allies can join the campaign. Call Shirlene Cooper at (718) 802-9540 x.18 or e-mail cooper@nycahn.org.

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Filed under displacement and gentrification, Drug users' rights, economic justice, harm reduction, housing, New York City, Solidarity Project, Uncategorized

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