March 28, 2008
A MESSAGE TO BRUNO
Job training program graduate Williams
"Just wait until November! People with AIDS will remember!" screamed more than 60 Housing Works clients and staff outside New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's office on Thursday afternoon. The chant alluded to the fact that the Senate's proposed elimination of $1.4 million in job training programs for poor people with HIV/AIDS and failure to restore benefits to disabled children in homes affected by AIDS are not causes that the Republican majority should champion if it wants to hold onto its slim margin in the next election.
The angry activists marched through every floor of the Legislative Office Building chanting and distributing 2,000 fliers, asking, "Why are Senate Republicans robbing poor, disabled children whose parents have AIDS?" and "What do Senate Republicans have against jobs for people with AIDS?," eventually arriving in front of Bruno's office. Twelve Housing Works staff members and clients lay on the floor outside the office entrance until state police wearing purple gloves dragged them past a scrum of reporters and onlookers, flipped them on their stomachs, cuffed and arrested them.
"I'd rather be up here working on Medicaid reform. We shouldn't be coming here to fight to keep these tiny pots of money. There's no logical programmatic reason job training and disabled children whose parents have AIDS are being neglected," said Housing Works President and CEO Charles King. King was the first to be arrested, followed by Andrew Coamey, Jose Cruz, Thomas D'Angelo, Eddie Fukui, Nina Herzog, Michael Korn, Tamara Oyola-Santiago, Ken Robinson, Amy Velez, Dennis Weakley and Diane Williams. The group was charged with disorderly conduct and released at 5 p.m. They will appear in court on April 10.
The tiny pots of state money Housing works was defending—a total of $8.4 million in a $120 billion budget—are for job-training for low-income people with AIDS and restored SSI welfare "invisibility" for disabled kids in families also receiving the HIV emergency shelter allowance. Both items were included in the Executive and Assembly one-house bills, but were eliminated by the Senate. During Housing Works' legislative visits to key Senate Republicans on Wednesday, different explanations were given for the cuts. Central Senate staff claimed that because both the job training program and SSI invisibility were listed as new appropriations—even though the job-training program has existed since 2001—they were immediately put on the chopping block. One senior staffer suggested that the cuts were a punitive political move, while an aide to Sen. Caesar Trunzo speculated that both programs were being used as budget negotiating chips. That concern prompted Thursday's chant, "Take a tip! You better get hip! We are not a bargaining chip!"
Korn, Velez and Herzog outside Bruno's office
Sen. Tom Duane said he believes that Gov. David Paterson will make the restoration of these cuts one of his budget priorities.Eighteen Senate Democrats, led by Duane, sent a letter to Bruno this afternoon, decrying the cuts.
"I'm hoping and pressing and fighting to make it agreed upon that the cuts will be restored," Duane said. "I have a lot of confidence in the Governor making this restoration one of his priorities because it's good public policy, as well as my colleagues in the Senate. And I hope and I believe that the Republicans will see this is mean-spirited."
And at least one Republican senator was outraged that Senate leadership was targeting poor people with AIDS. After his aide met with Housing Works Job Training Program graduates, Sen. Joseph Robach wrote a letter to Bruno opposing the $1.4 million cut to HIV/AIDS job training programs. Liberty Resources, an HIV/AIDS job training program, is in his home district of Rochester. An aide to Sen. Jim Alesi, also a Rochester Republican, said Alesi would probably do the same.
Liberty Resources is one of seven organizations that would be affected by the cut. State funds support job-training programs run by seven organizations in New York City, Westchester, Albany and Syracuse. The funding is not awarded until six months after participants are employed at a job with health insurance, getting people off of public assistance and Medicaid. Between 2003 and 2008 the program placed 615 poor New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS into employment.
"I want to show my little girl that her mother is doing something for her life," said Caroline Cruz, who is in Housing Works' Job Training Program. "I'd like to eventually have a full-time job. I can do better than welfare."
Undoing Pataki's travesty
After an aide to Robach heard Housing Works' clients explain how the government is denying SSI invisibility to disabled kids in families affected by AIDS during a Wednesday office visit, he remarked, "That seems rather punitive."
Activists couldn't agree more. Six years ago, Gov. George Pataki changed state law to deny SSI "invisibility" to disabled children in households also receiving the HIV emergency shelter allowance. That meant that a disabled child's SSI benefits were included in calculating welfare cash assistance for a household—thereby brutally reducing income for 1,100 already-poor families by $573 a month. State courts, including the Court of Appeals, consistently ruled in favor of the principle of SSI invisibility for disabled children in Housing Works' Melendez v. Doarlawsuit. The Empire State Law Project won a similar suit on behalf of 27,000 other households with a disabled child receiving welfare assistance. Restoring SSI invisibility would cost the state $7 million.
Diane Williams, a Housing Works employee who got arrested in protest of the cuts Thursday, was personally affected by both job-training and SSI programs. A graduate of the Housing Works Job Training Program who now works as an executive assistant, she had to care for two disabled children, one of whom died of AIDS before she could get her SSI benefits. When her other daughter received SSI benefits, her rental subsidy was decreased. "It was a struggle just taking care of my kids," Williams said. "I didn't have enough money to be as good of a mom as I could have been."
The protest, which received coverage from The Albany Times-Union, , NBC, WXXI and other media outlets, earned mostly positive responses, with everyone from school children to Assembly Members giving Housing Works thumbs-up and applause. One hater, however, was Republican Assembly Member Joel Miller, who was turned off by Housing Works' spirited chants (which included the appropriation of an old ACT UP ditty, "When people with AIDS are under attack at Housing Works we fight back!").
King dragged away by state police
"We have civil ways of coming into offices!" Miller screamed at the protestors. "Simply making a lot of noise is a form of brutality and it has never changed a single vote." One of Miller's LOB neighbors, Assembly Member Aileen Gunther, came out to defend the demonstration. "This is the people's house," she said, adding to Housing Works' staffers "I hope you get SSI invisibility restored." Gunther represents Sullivan County, which she said has the highest HIV rate in New York outside of New York City.
If the Senate doesn't back off from its attacks on poor people living with HIV/AIDS, Housing Works will continue to stage protests outside the offices of Senators in their home districts. Bills will begin to be printed on Sunday and Monday. The Update will know more then and keep you posted.