The 60-year-old was trapped in a bureaucratic quagmire. The HIV/AIDS Services Administration, or HASA, was supposed to pay most of her rent but for months had failed to pay her landlord. Her HASA caseworker had promised her repeatedly that the money was coming, but it never did. Herring was also a few hundred dollars behind on her contribution to her rent.
Now, she found herself in court without her HASA caseworker.
“He had enough time to call me back,” she said as she waited to see the judge. “I don’t know why he isn’t here.”
Herring's situation underscored the challenges faced by an estimated 11,000 HIV-positive New Yorkers who rely on HASA to help pay their rent. Because of budget cuts, some HASA clients and HIV/AIDS advocates say, HASA is having trouble providing housing services to its clients.
“Rents being paid late, apartments not being approved on a timely basis, people getting haphazard services,” said Charles King, Executive Director of Housing Works, an advocacy and service organization that works to improve the quality of life of New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS. “We’re seeing this on an increasing basis across the board.”
A HASA representative declined to give a quotable statement by deadline, but said that the agency does not comment on individual cases, nor does it keep records of how many clients are currently facing eviction or rent arrears.
By law, HASA is required to maintain a ratio of one caseworker to every 34 clients. But interviews with advocates and HASA clients showed that cuts to HASA programming may be affecting the quality of case management services at HASA.
“They don’t have enough people to do the work for the amount of clients they have,” said Kristin Goodwin, Director of New York City Policy and Organizing at Housing Works.
Since his first term as Mayor, Michael Bloomberg has cut millions of dollars from HASA’s budget, affecting nutritional, educational and other services at the agency—including its housing program. In 2009 Bloomberg eliminated HASA’s “Scatter Site II” program, a housing program that provided case management services for six months to clients with HIV/AIDS in independent housing.
In the fiscal year 2010-2011 budget, Bloomberg proposed budgets cuts that would have eliminated 248 HASA case managers—nearly one third of the agency’s staff—but withdrew the proposal after HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations filed a motion in court to prevent the cuts. The organizations charged that the cuts would have violated the lawful staffing ratio.
Goodwin said she has heard stories that range from clients being threatened with eviction from their apartments because HASA did not keep up with their payments, to housing paperwork simply disappearing.
In one case, Goodwin said, a client’s landlord raised the rent and HASA failed to increase their contribution for a full year, leaving the client served with an eviction notice.
“They had called and called and called their HASA worker, and the client had been working with their HASA worker, but nothing went through the system,” Goodwin said.
“It’s been really frustrating in the past couple years to watch the systemic dismantling of HASA services,” she added.
In addition, a recent legislative attempt to reduce the financial burdens of HASA housing clients faltered. On September 18, Gov. David Paterson vetoed a bill that would have helped such clients by capping their personal contribution to their rent at 30 percent of their income. Paterson said that if the Legislature could find funding for the bill, he would sign it before his term ends in December.
Meanwhile, some clients who receive a HASA rent subsidy pay as much as 70 percent of their income in rent. “Basically, you’re reduced to a level of impoverishment,” King said.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, Herring consulted with an attorney before she approached the judge. She said that HASA owed most of the back rent, and he asked her if she had documents proving she was a HASA client.
“No,” Herring said, visibly frustrated. “I’ve never done this before.”
The judge ruled she would have until the end of October to get her back rent sorted out with HASA. The court determined that Herring owed her landlord $339, while HASA owed $1,447.
After the hearing, a Human Resources Administration court liaison met with Herring and gave her his telephone number. He told her to go straight to her HASA caseworker and give him all the paperwork. If the problem wasn’t solved, he told her to call him.
Herring laughed for the first time that morning and clapped her hand to her mouth.
“I just feel better now that someone is helping me,” she said.
Despite her success in court, Herring, who pays 54 percent of her income in rent, said she will continue to struggle to make ends meet.
Because her illness prevents her from working, she relies on Social Security and SSI payments for income. One day last month, in her Bronx apartment, she sat on her bed next to a large brown teddy bear and pointed out the handful of pills she takes each morning and night to keep her disease at bay. She contracted HIV in 1981 at Metropolitan Hospital after a botched blood transfusion but was not tested until 1995, when she went to a health clinic and they suggested she take the test.
When she got the results back, she found out the virus had progressed to AIDS.
Herring worked as a counselor for HIV-positive women at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital until 2007 but had to quit because of her health, she said. Since then she’s been hospitalized multiple times for heart problems and pneumonia.
Without the ability to work, she said, life is hard.
“I’m barely surviving,” Herring said. “It’s not an easy life for a person with the virus.”
Her Social Security and SSI payments total about $780 each month. After she pays $423 a month for her $1,100 apartment in Parkchester, $357 remains. With it, she pays for the gas, electric and cable bill, for bus fare to her frequent medical appointments, and other living expenses.
Sometimes, she said, she has to choose between buying a new pair of shoes or paying her electric bill.
“Sometimes what I do is if I can pay the rent I pay the rent,” Herring said. “If some bill can be omitted so I can pay something else, I’ll do that. This is how I’m living. Believe me, it’s not comfortable.”
“Sometimes you would like to take yourself to a movie,” she added. “Or take yourself to dinner. That’s not happening here.”