ACT UP, Philly organizers demand solutions to affordable housing

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Jamaal Henderson and other activists.

Activists from several Philadelphia human rights groups united outside of Biden Transition Headquarters near the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., demanding affordable housing for people living with HIV/AIDS and disabilities. Members of ACT UP Philadelphia, Black and Brown Queer and Trans Community Control of Health, Reclaim Philadelphia, ADAPT/Disabled in Action Philadelphia, LILAC Philadelphia, Housing Works, Act Now: End AIDS and Put People First! PA comprised the group that gathered on Dec. 2, the day after World AIDS Day. 

Jamaal Henderson of ACT UP Philadelphia, Chelsea Chamroeun of Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Network, Izzy Sazak of Applied Mechanics Theater Company and José de Marco of ACT UP Philadelphia and Black and Brown Queer and Trans Community Control of Health spoke at the demonstration. 

“In 2020, America is in the midst of several pandemics,” Henderson said. “Most obviously, COVID-19 is exploiting existing public health disparities and straining already strained resources. But on World AIDS Day, as on every day, we must not forget that America is still in the midst of an HIV pandemic.”

The activists alluded to recent research indicating that coronavirus infections and deaths were higher in cities without eviction bans than in cities with them. The relationship to accessible housing and coronavirus death prevention parallels that of accessible housing and HIV death prevention, they found. The group called for Biden to institute a nation-wide eviction reprieve. 

“Over 10,000 deaths could have been prevented just by stopping all evictions,” Henderson added. “And that’s not a surprise because as HIV activists we have known for years that housing is healthcare. Housing reduces HIV morbidity by over 80%, so of course it’s going to have the same impact on COVID.”

Members of ACT UP Philadelphia sent a memo to the Biden/Harris HUD agency review team demanding concrete solutions to affordable housing programs. Some of their demands include: fully funding section 8 housing and Rep. Maxine Waters’ comprehensive Ending Homelessness Act; increasing support for rapid rehousing; immediately halting evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the pandemic; taking measures to move people out of congregate housing and into affordable, accessible, integrated housing; bankrolling solutions that treat housing as a public good; and advocating for housing as a public health issue, which involves making sure LGBTQ people, Black, Brown and indigenous people, disabled people and people living with HIV and other chronic illnesses can access affordable housing. They also called for adequately funding the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program (HOPWA). 

“Biden should know it is cheaper to house people than pay for a lifetime of exorbitant HIV meds,” de Marco said at the demonstration. “One HIV medication alone can be $2,500 a month, the cost of a luxury apartment. Fully fund HOPWA and Section 8, cancel rent, invest in public housing in the first 100 days.” 

Biden’s HUD team agreed to meet with the Greater Homes Coalition, but ACT UP Philadelphia was not included until the group spoke up, de Marco told PGN. They are hoping for a separate HOPWA meeting that includes members of Black and Brown Queer and Trans Community Control of Health. As of press time, the Biden/Harris team in Wilmington did not respond to a request for comment.

A recent study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine reads in part, “Housing comprises more than just physical shelter. Where we live is where our personal, social, and economic lives come together. People who lack stable, secure, adequate housing lack a protected space to maintain physical and psychological well-being — finding themselves consistently in stress-producing environments with consequences for mental health and immunological functioning. The press of daily needs can be a barrier to the use of available services.” 

Members of ACT UP and Reclaim Philadelphia also hosted a public Zoom conversation with community activists who rely on government-funded housing and disability assistance. Their main topic of discussion was the need for the Biden administration to sufficiently fund affordable housing programs. Among the speakers were ADAPT/Disabled in Action Executive Director Philadelphia Zachary Lewis and Liberty Resources Inc Policy and Project Coordinator Liam Dougherty. Both are people living with disabilities.  

“I think we largely gave this victory to [Biden and Harris], we paved the way for them,” Dougherty said in the Zoom meeting. “So it’s up to them now to include us in their own priorities. I’m glad to see the administration recognizing the COVID disparities, but we need a total shift, especially for the disability community. We often go unseen and unthought of…We need to be included in those conversations.” 

Lewis explained in the meeting that people who rely on government assistance like SNAP or Cash Assistance typically receive $738-$1200 per month, rounding out to roughly $14,000 per year. 

“That area median income is so low for people to be able to survive on without having to resort to anything negative out there on the streets,” Lewis said in the meeting. 

He also discussed the importance of being able to choose affordable housing without having to rely on associated healthcare plans. “There are people that will say, ‘if you’re going to live in my accessible, affordable integrated housing, then you have to sign onto this healthcare system,’” he added. “Having a right to choose means being able to choose what you want when you want, on your own terms.”

In their World AIDS Day statement, the ACT UP team quoted AIDS activist, GLAAD founder and author Vito Russo from his speech at a 1988 demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services. 

“Since I was diagnosed, my family thinks two things about my situation,” Russo said in his speech. “One, they think I’m going to die, and two, they think that my government is doing absolutely everything in their power to stop that. And they’re wrong, on both counts. If I’m dying from anything, I’m dying from homophobia. If I’m dying from anything, I’m dying from racism. If I’m dying from anything, it’s from indifference and red tape, because these are the things that are preventing an end to this crisis.”

While the roadblocks to eradicating the AIDS and COVID-19 crises differ in some ways, “many, many things remain the same,” the ACT UP statement says, “because we still value protecting the wealth and comfort of white heterosexual men more than keeping everyone healthy.”