Are you serious? That's what state Supreme Court Judge Emily Goodman said to the city's excuses for violating an order she issued in 1999 requiring it provide medically appropriate housing to homeless people with AIDS on the day they request it. In a complaint filed on May 1, Housing Works asked for redress for 17 homeless people with AIDS who were denied housing by the city. Judge Goodman found the city in contempt in five of the complaints, and demanded it reimburse each of them for legal expenses and $250 for every night they asked the city for shelter and still slept on the street or subways.
“Lest there be any confusion,” she said, “the city of New York and defendants, DASIS, are directed to provide and ensure medically suitable transitional housing with same day placement.” According to her 1999 order, homeless people with AIDS must be placed in shelter with a private bathroom and refrigerator since they are susceptible to disease and need a place to store medication. Judge Goodman plans to review the cases of the 12 other plaintiffs before making a ruling on them.
The city Department of AIDS Services and Income Support did not deny its errors in court last week, and in fact admitted that the hotel addresses given to their clients were simply written down incorrectly. But the city said it does plan to appeal the decision anyway. The grounds: human error. “They were mistakes,” said Georgia Pestana, the city's assistant corporation counsel. “You can't expect perfection in a system where you're housing 80,000 people.” In addition, she said, the city should not be held responsible for what happens once a client walks out DASIS' door: “If we refer a client to a hotel and they are turned away, it is not our fault.”
Housing Works scoffs at this attitude. “The city's responsibility to provide housing doesn't end when a client is handed a piece of paper,” said attorney Armen Merjian. “It ends when the person gets housing.” That housing, of course, is not so easy to come by, which is why the city spends $300 a night on luxury Manhattan hotels. This while DASIS finishes up the fiscal year with $9.7 million in unspent money tagged for creating housing for people with AIDS, a figure Human Resources Administration Commissioner Jason Turner fessed up to at City Council's budget hearings earlier this month.
For the immediate future, Merjian hopes Judge Goodman's decision will be a wake-up call the city needs. Immediately after her ruling in 1999, the system seemed to work fine. Last August, however, his office began receiving complaints from their homeless clients, and they haven't let up since. “They have known month after month that this is happening, yet they have stuck their heads in the sand.”