ACT UP demands homes, not excuses!




Philadelphia – Members of AIDS activist groups ACT UP Philadelphia and Proyecto Sol, along with graduate students in the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Studies Program and medical school, met with Mayor Michael Nutter on Monday. The students and activists shared the results of a research and planning process and asked the mayor to commit to spending two to four million dollars to create permanent housing to end the two-year long waiting list for housing for people with AIDS in Philadelphia.

ACT UP Members Carla Fields, Cliff Williams, and Carlos Gonzales (along with six other ACT UP members) shared personal testimony of the dangers of living on the streets and in shelters with a compromised immune system. All three had experienced stigma, dangerous diseases, fleas and bedbugs (which are especially dangerous for people living with HIV), poor nutrition and lack of access to medication while in the city shelter system. Mr. Williams, whose wife passed away from HIV and cancer while on the AIDS housing wait list, pointed out that because shelters are the only options for people with AIDS who need homes, and there are no city shelters for families, he and his wife had to stay on opposite sides of the city while she was dying.  Ms. Fields, who volunteers regularly in Philadelphia’s tent cities, and is homeless herself, testified that her experience was not unique. “I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this for all my brothers and sisters who are dying and need homes.” Mr. Gonzales added that without the housing he eventually received, he would not be alive today. “Being in a home meant I could take my medicine, get good nutrition, and become a productive member of society.”

Urban Design students Jonathan Snyder and Phil Dawson and Professor Michael Nairn then shared the preliminary results of the research they have done into housing models, costs, and ways for the city to fund housing for people with AIDS while reducing long-term costs. They shared that a “housing first” model, which provides stable, permanent housing without requiring long shelter stays and transitional housing (the “continuum of care” model currently emphasized in Philadelphia for people with HIV/AIDS), has saved other comparable cities $88,000 per client per year, when compared with the “continuum of care” model. In addition, the housing first model means that families like Mr. Williams would not have to spend years shuttling back and forth between mens’ and womens’ shelters, and people like Ms. Fields would not be forced to live in shelter systems that were actively making them sick through contagious diseases and insect infestations.

Penn medical students Roland Li and Luke Messac then shared a consensus statement signed by 75 Philadelphia-area medical professionals, supporting the immediate adoption of a housing first model for people with HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, ending the waiting list for AIDS housing, and expanding Philadelphia’s capacity to provide homes for people living with HIV.

Mayor Nutter took detailed notes on each participant’s statement. Promising to review their documents and his notes, he continued, “I can’t commit to anything right now.” He explained that funding for the fiscal year 2012 was uncertain, and said, “I don’t want to make this a political conversation, but I live in a political world… A lot changed [on election day, November 2].” Ms. Fields expressed disappointment and frustration that while he apologized to her personally for her experience in Philadelphia’s shelter system, that he was unwilling to solve the problem for everyone on the waiting list.

ACT UP’s analysis of the city’s budget shows that the prison and court systems are massive drains on city resources. On top of that, millions are spent to put people into what ACT UP member Cliff Williams describes as “shelter warehouses”. ACT UP member Max Ray added, “We know that providing homes saves lives and saves money, keeps people out of jail and out of chronic homelessness. Why spend money to warehouse people in prisons and shelters, when for less money we could house them in permanent homes?”

On Wednesday, AIDS activists, angered by the Mayor’s refusal to provide safe, stable housing to people with AIDS, to save lives and save the city money over time, gathered at City Hall to memorialize those for whom housing comes to late, and remind the mayor of the 8000 HIV-positive Philadelphians with unmet housing needs. “People with AIDS need homes, not excuses,” proclaimed ACT UP and Proyecto Sol member Jose De Marco, before leading the activists in a die-in in front of the City Hall entrance. Chalk outlines of their bodies will remain outside the Juniper entrance until it rains, a reminder to the mayor of the anger and disappointment he faced at Monday night’s meeting.