June 29, 2007
NEW YORKERS REACH OUT TO PUERTO RICANS IN CRISIS
|Special delivery from Housing Works of condoms and harm reduction supplies: Patricia Torruella from Iniciativa Comunitaria and Julie Peña from Housing Works.|
As Puerto Rico's AIDS crisis continues to spin out of control, representatives from Citywide Harm Reduction and Housing Works left their trip to find out how Puerto Rican New Yorkers can help support Puerto Rican PLWAs inspired, frustrated and determined to support activists living with HIV/AIDS make policy change.
"It's the year 2007, but it was like the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic starting all over again," said Julie Peña, Program Director of Women's Transitional Housing for Housing Works and a member of the delegation. "It broke my heart to see individuals still going through this."
Peña and Housing Works vice president of development Robert Cordero were joined by Citywide Harm Reduction's executive director Tamara Oyola Santiago and syringe exchange coordinator Rafael Torruella. From June 23 to 27, the New York contingency spoke to Puerto Rican activists providers about activism, injection drug use, the Federal Bureau of Investigations subpoena of Ryan White funding information and, of course, the funding crisis.
The most urgent priority is to assist the Puerto Rican community-based organizations with legal issues and help the underpaid and unpaid staff. There is also a lack of services for IV drug users, the group hardest hit by the epidemic.
The contingency had several suggestions for activists both in Puerto Rico and the mainland, including:
- Connecting Puerto Rican PLWAs with other national coalitions such as C2EA, Drug Policy Alliance and NAPWA
- Supporting Rep. Nydia Velazquez's bill to pump funding into Puerto Rico.
- Advocating expansion of ADAP drug coverage and AIDS funding through MAI and Medicaid
- Advocacating expansion of harm reduction-based medical care
The New York contingency wants to assist activists who are doing remarkable work despite the dearth of funding. Peña was particularly inspired by Gloria Gonzalez, an activist in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Despite Gonzalez's inability to pay rent, legal issues and horrid conditions on the ground, she is attempting prevention and treatment among drug users who are using the horse anesthesia Ketamine as a drug. "She's dealing with a situations the IDUs describe as modern-day leprosy," Peña said. "I was amazed that she has taken this task by herself."
The contingent is going to coordinate and debrief with the New York chapter of Unidos Danole Cara al Sida (UDCAS)in support of UDCAS PR and PLWAs on the island.Solidarity in New York
While delegates from Housing Works and Citywide Harm Reduction were in Puerto Rico, members of both of these groups were some of the 40 protesters who braved the stifling heat to express solidarity and outrage about the AIDS crisis in Puerto Rico. On Wednesday, June 27, National AIDS Testing Day, UDCAS NY lead a rally in the shadow of City Hall decrying the lack of care for HIV and AIDS victims all across the U.S. territory. Joined by Housing Works and Citywide Harm reduction, the prevalent emotion was that of outrage. How can we allow for our government to forget its people?
That disgust was echoed by the lineup of speakers. Dr. Marcelo Venegas, senior vice president for Health Services at Housing Works detailed the horrors of PLWHA denied proper care and medication. "The way the government is dealing with the situation is criminal neglect. It's murder," Venegas said. As a doctor he sees a solution being sidelined by bureaucratic mismanagement. Thousands of people are on a waiting list just to get the cocktail, while all Puerto Rico is getting is "chump change compared to the other states."
Puerto Rico is in a state of emergency," Venegas said. "The health of our people is not negotiatiable."
Citywide's Eddie Santiago said our outrage should be used to fuel change. From Citywide, he hopes that this rally can create positive momentum and that it will be a "voice for the people suffering." This was an attempt not only to pressure the federal government but also to create a coalition of people who care, from the bottom up.
UDCAS's Roberto Rodriquez explained how those at the rally can help lead the change. "It begins with us. If we don't do it nobody will." If no one cares than people go to desperate lengths just to get treatment. He related stories of people who leave their homes in Puerto Rico and come to New York and purposely get incarcerated, knowing that drugs will be provided in prison. "Incarceration for care, does that sound right to you?" Rodriquez challenged.
Motivated by these horrors and truths, the rally and its protestors are only going to move forward. Taking positive steps included a sign-up sheet for more information, and urging people to contact their representatives and urge them to allocate emergency funds to Puerto Rico. Change starts right here.