Over Our Dead Bodies: Dying Homeless People with AIDS on the Streets of Philadelphia

Sam Sitrin and Members of ACT UP

by Sam Sitrin and members of ACT UP

ACT UP Philadelphia (AIDS COALTION TO UNLEASH POWER), the AIDS activist group, is inciting action in response to the City of Philadelphia having the worst record for housing sick people with AIDS in the continental United States. The only cities that are part of the United States with more people homeless with AIDS are in Puerto Rico and Guam.

ACT UP Philadelphia compiled a housing report on the sick people with AIDS living on the street. On June 30th, in rage and fury, one hundred Philadelphians delivered this report to Mayor Nutter’s office in City Hall after a powerful demonstration outside his window. The report reflects that people in this city are struggling to stay alive on the street and are being denied the essentials for survival.  People reported their difficulty accessing medication and the ability to keep and take medication when on the street, the challenges of eating nutritiously, and the detrimental effect of extreme temperatures on health.

Cities like New York have larger numbers of people with AIDS than Philadelphia, but they provide immediate housing to keep people from getting sick. Large cities in the US receive money from the federal government program HOPWA (Housing Opportunities For People With AIDS), but this money is not enough to house all people living with AIDS. For that reason, other cities provide supplemental money. The City of Philadelphia contributes zero dollars to house people with AIDS, unlike most other large cities that manage to house people.

The City of Philadelphia’s Aids Activities Coordinating Office grants vouchers; people living with AIDS then only have to pay 30% of their income for housing. Most people with AIDS are living on a small government subsidy such as welfare or disability and cannot afford so-called market rents. They are disabled and not able to work. This problem has created a nearly two-year waiting list for people living with AIDS. To be eligible for this waiting list you must have an AIDS diagnosis and have suffered a serious AIDS defined illness. That translates to one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel before a person can even be considered eligible for the two year waiting list for AIDS housing. People with AIDS have died on this listing waiting for safe, affordable, and stable housing.

Many people with AIDS are already sick and some are homeless on the streets; some are in unsafe and unsanitary shelters. Shelters are potentially dangerous places for people with compromised immune systems.  ACT UP members that have been in shelters have contracted scarlet fever, bed bug bites, scabies, exposure to TB and have been susceptible to a myriad of contagions which can be life-threatening if your immune system is weakened from HIV infection. Additionally AIDS medication is often confiscated by untrained shelter workers who have control over their medication dosing. One missed dose could cause the person to develop resistance to whatever HIV medication they depend on—these medications are life sustaining.

Everyone deserves housing. It is a human right.  Being seriously physically ill with AIDS and homeless is a death sentence, and ACT UP believes that as a society we must protect our most vulnerable. According to the Health Department, six people with AIDS died on the streets in the last 18 months. Spokespeople for the Health Department cowardly claimed they did not die from AIDS. Everyone knows no one dies from AIDS: they die from AIDS complications. Maybe if they were housed they would still be alive and living with AIDS. Imagine having a really bad flu and having to walk the streets with no place to go. That scenario is mild compared to some AIDS opportunistic infections that people with AIDS endure. People are more likely to succumb to death if living on the streets.  Sick homeless people can be compelled to exchange sex to simply get out of cold and snow for a night or two respite from the streets. We find not providing housing to be outrageous and unacceptable when we know that millions of dollars of federal stimulus money came to Philadelphia four months ago for housing. The money will be and probably has been used to make low-income neighborhoods attractive and inviting for yuppies and hipsters to move to. 

ACT UP has attempted to talk with city council members repeatedly, only to be turned away or have their meetings repeatedly canceled. The most glaring example of this is Councilwoman Janie Blackwell, the City Council's person on housing who has not sat down with people with AIDS after months of attempts to arrange a meeting. In fact, her office canceled three meetings.  Ms. Blackwell does have a big holiday dinner for the homeless every year.  However, we need roofs over our heads, not turkey dinners and publicity opportunities for Councilwoman Blackwell serving holiday dinners.

Mayor Nutter could allocate general city funds to alleviate this problem. ACT UP members approached him at AIDS education month in June this year about this issue and he did not have time to discuss a solution with us. He said, “I have a group looking into that” and walked briskly out the door. His office still refuses to meet with us after several attempts and a fiery action. We know that Philadelphia is claiming that they have no money, but there is money for a fancy new ultra-modern convention center on Broad Street to compliment the two convention centers that already exist.  We know that millions in federal housing stimulus money was not used to house the homeless. We know that Philadelphia has thousands of abandoned homes that sit empty and are deteriorating.  Our report found that it is actually cheaper to provide people permanent housing than it is to warehouse them in shelters. Housing homeless people with HIV/AIDS keeps us out of hospitals and off the Medical Examiners table.

This is gross and obscene injustice. The city is essentially telling homeless people with AIDS to drop dead. We know that as people with HIV/AIDS we are poor, people of color, queer, formerly incarcerated, sex workers, transgender, and former and active addicts. We are victims of a social and economic system that does not work for us. It keeps us poor, powerless, sick, and homeless. I am sure they wish we would just drop dead and we are doing just that. Six people with AIDS already have died on the streets of Philadelphia this year. We demand to live and die with human dignity.

The city of Philadelphia is getting away with this and stepping over our dead bodies.

ACT UP Philadelphia members refuse to die in the streets. We need your brains, bodies, and rage. We need you to fight back with us shoulder to shoulder against a city that has thousands of empty abandoned homes, builds more convention centers, and uses federal housing stimulus money for gentrification rather than providing housing to the most physically vulnerable and stigmatized people. We need your help and ask for your support to help us fight this life threatening injustice.

We meet every Monday night at St. Luke’s church at 330 S. 13th Street at 6pm. Light snacks are provided and tokens are available if needed. Call 215 386 1981 or email pepperbeet@yahoo.com