This summer, members of GVSHP’s first-ever book club (myself included!) are reading Tim Murphy’s Christodora together. It’s a time-travelling exploration of evolving neighborhoods, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and how the lives of New Yorkers can intertwine and connect in ways you never quite expect. Each week, members receive an email containing story recaps, additional reading, discussion questions, and other ways we can all continue to engage with the reading and its real-life, historical inspirations.
In that vein, today’s Off the Grid explores the history of housing for people with HIV/AIDS in the East Village and Greenwich Village. In the Christodora chapters we’re reading, one main character begins the 1980s in a high position at the NYC Department of Health. But as the HIV/AIDS crisis comes into focus, she becomes disenchanted with an inert and ineffective bureaucracy. In reality, many at the time felt that the city government was doing far too little to combat the havoc wrought by the deadly virus. And so by the late ’80s, this character quits her job so that she can make a bigger impact. She buys a building on Avenue B and starts Judith House, a residence for women living with AIDS. Judith House itself is a creation of Christodora‘s author Tim Murphy, but the concept is very much rooted in real history. The twin crises of AIDS and homelessness intersected in the 1980s to create a true epidemic – in 1990 there were an estimated 13,000 homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. There were government mandates and services meant to deal with the crisis, but the results were a mere drop in the bucket. In the gap left by a lack of sufficient government programs, new organizations were formed to meet the pressing need.
The first such project in New York began in 1983, right here in Greenwich Village. What began as the AIDS Resource Center, with a few “scatter-site” apartment units in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, eventually became Bailey House and Bailey-Holt House – the first “congregate residence” for people living with HIV/AIDS. The services this organization provided were absolutely vital to the quality of life and survival rates of New Yorkers, but it was also an important symbol. Sitting prominently on the corner of Christopher and West Streets, Bailey House was the first time any agency was publicly acknowledging and funding a project that dealt with the intersecting issues of homelessness and HIV/AIDS. This proclaimed, loud and clear, that HIV/AIDS and homelessness were civic issues, ones that the city and its citizens had an obligation to address and help mitigate. It’s opening was important enough that in January of 1987, David Dunlap of the New York Times wrote a piece on the house entitled “For Homeless with AIDS, a New Home.” Today, the organization serves more than 1800 men, women, and children, across the city, living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses.
But not all health organizations were quite so progressive. The same year that the Bailey-Holt House opened its doors and began providing congregate housing, other Greenwich Villagers were being turned away for treatment at the Northern Dispensary. Many New Yorkers today are familiar with this charming triangle building at the intersection of Waverly, Christopher and Grove Streets. Built in 1831, the Dispensary’s deed stipulates that the site must be used to provide health care and healing for those in need, and in 1986 it became ground zero for a human rights fight. That year, the Dispensary, which had become primarily a dental clinic for the underserved, refused to treat patients with HIV/AIDS. Advocates across the city lambasted the Dispensary for discrimination, and the Human Rights Commission stepped in. The Dispensary lost that battle, and the controversy ended with the clinic closing in 1989.
With the building vacant, an organization called BRC Human Services was in talks to take over the building and convert it to 15 rooms of SROs for people living with AIDS. Prominent advocacy groups like ACT UP supported the plan, but a vocal neighborhood group opposed it. Their argument? They said they didn’t oppose the use of the building for the treatment of people with AIDS; rather, they said that the housing plan was too exclusive. They argued that because the Dispensary was a historic landmark mandated for public use, it should not serve only fifteen individuals, housing them in tiny rooms. Instead, the neighborhood group said the building should be turned into a dental clinic or other health facility that could serve scores of New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. ACT UP and many others supported the plan, pointing out there was no alternative on the table, and in some cases accusing the opponents of being less than honest about the true nature of their opposition. The fight raged on, and eventually the plans were scuttled. The Northern Dispensary was sold to the Gottlieb family in 1998, and has remained vacant ever since.
While all that controversy was brewing over a mere 15 units of HIV/AIDS housing, 13,000 New Yorkers were still in need of shelter. So in 1990, four members of ACT UP’s Housing Committee founded an organization that would prioritize shelter above all else. They called their organization Housing Works and, unlike many other housing services in the city, did not require abstinence from certain habits or behavior, like alcohol or drugs. Instead, they made providing shelter the first priority for everyone they served. Once the person was in a stable housing condition, House Works could offer “harm reduction” services, including counseling, needle exchange programs, and other services to encourage healthy lives for their residents. The first Housing Works homes were on the East Side, where they perceived that need was the greatest. They often provided shelter to people with HIV/AIDS who, under technicalities of bureaucracy, did not meet the strict legal definition of AIDS that gave them entry into city or state run facilities.
In 1994 Housing Works bought 743-749 East 9th Street for the first ground-up housing facility for people with HIV/AIDS. Today, the organization has built over 200 units of permanent and temporary housing and has served over 20,000 people. Their bookstore and many thrift shops have made them a ubiquitous presence in today’s New York, which can sometimes obscure their beginnings as fierce advocates and the very meaningful impact they’ve had on health and housing services in New York for nearly three decades now.
If you want to learn more about Housing Works’ advocacy, the website Housing Works History is an exhaustive timeline of the organization’s work to bring shelter and other services to New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. It’s full of information on organizational action as well as context and insight into the larger HIV/AIDS housing issue in New York.
And if this type of history interests you, consider reading Christodora. It’s not too late to join our book club! We’re just finishing Chapter 11 but you can catch up in no time, and all the previous chapter recaps and discussion questions are posted on the club’s Goodreads.com page so you won’t miss any of the additional material. Sign up at that Goodreads.com link (by creating an account and joining the Village Book Club group) or by filling out this form. Or if book clubs aren’t your thing, just join us on August 1st when the author Tim Murphy hosts a book talk at the lovely KGB Red Room. No prior knowledge or reading necessary!