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SRO Murder Shows Problems With Housing for HIV/AIDS Patients, Critics Say

By DNAinfo Staff | August 8, 2012 6:33am 

UPPER WEST SIDE — Friends, family and coworkers gathered last Sunday to bid a tearful farewell to John Baisley, 56, a resident of a single-room occupancy building who was stabbed to death in a fight with a fellow resident last month.

Hanging over the service at the Ortiz Funeral Home was a persistent question: Why hadn't more been done to prevent such an attack at the Camden Hotel, an SRO the city refers HIV and AIDS patients to for emergency housing, where Baisley lived and worked?

“It was negligent,” said Margarita Reyes-Baisley, the victim's common-law wife of 30 years, who also lived at the Camden at 206 West 95th Street. “He was betrayed.”

Baisely was remembered as a caring, compassionate man who had turned his life around after surviving drug addiction, incarceration, and infection with HIV. He had devoted the last 14 years of his life to helping those also in treatment.

Margarita Baisley, 51, attends the funeral of her late husband John Baisley at the Ortiz Funeral Hall on July 29th, 2012.
Margarita Baisley, 51, attends the funeral of her late husband John Baisley at the Ortiz Funeral Hall on July 29th, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Paul Lomax

Reyes-Baisley said her husband had been paid $649 per week cash by the Camden to patrol the halls from 8 p.m. to midnight weekdays and on Saturday night. On July 20, Baisley was in the process of confronting Bernardo Paulino, an Army veteran with a history of mental illness, about his imminent eviction when Paulino allegedly went berserk and stabbed him, police said.

Nearly two dozen residents and advocates interviewed by DNAinfo.com New York said the murder is the most dramatic example of problems that have been ongoing for years at the Camden and other SROs used by the city, including widespread failure to meet the most basic threshold for safety and social services.

They added that the Camden is plagued by rampant drug use, fighting and unsanitary living conditions, including rat and cockroach infestations — even though it is supposed to provide an emergency safe haven for some of the city's sickest and most vulnerable residents.

The city's HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) spends more than $14 million a year in taxpayer funds to house hundreds of homeless men and women with HIV and AIDS — who are exempt from living in the regular shelter system — in the Camden and 25 other privately-managed SROs across the city. But patient privacy laws mean the units have virtually no independent oversight.

Baisley's friends and family blamed his death on the city, which they said failed to provide security and services that could have prevented the attack.

“The owner says to me, ‘It’s safe.' So safe they killed my husband?” said Reyes-Baisley, 51.

“There’s no protection, no safety,” said Leonard Mitchell, 29, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2008 and has been living in HASA emergency housing ever since.

Mitchell, who said he works sometimes as a music promoter, moved to the Camden three weeks ago from a nearby SRO at West 97th and Riverside Drive. But what he found made him feel like he'd be safer living in a traditional homeless shelter with trained security staff.

“They don’t have scanners. They don’t have metal detectors,” said Mitchell, who had grown close with Baisley and urged the city to shut the building down.

Some residents complained of frequent violence, including fistfights and shouting matches. Others described near-constant drug use and dealing, both in rooms and in the halls of what local police once described to one community leader as "the second-most dangerous building in the precinct."

"[There are] drug addicts, prostitutes, all kinds of ex-cons, gangsters, Bloods, Latin Kings," said Lance Sevorwell, 46, who has lived at the Camden for the past four months.

Advocates say they have long warned that the SROs are a recipe for disaster.

“It’s a purgatory where HASA sends homeless people with HIV who will often have mental health and substance abuse issues,” described Sean Barry, executive director of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group that works with HASA clients. He said that violence can easily escalate when clients are not taking their medication or connecting to mental health services.

“It's partially a consequence of HASA’s neglect and HASA's warehousing of these clients," he said of the stabbing. "People are just sort of left on their own."

Kristin Goodwin, director of NYC policy and organizing at Housing Works, which provides housing and support to many HASA clients, agreed the city needs to do a better job of oversight at SROs.

”It’s not medically appropriate. It’s not mental health appropriate,” she said, adding that staff hear countless complaints about conditions.

“We hear a lot that clients don’t feel safe,” she said. "If there’s an issue with another client or tenant, there’s no one to talk to about that. Fairly often, bathroom and kitchen facilities that are shared don’t work or are out of repair, or aren’t clean."

“I think [the incident] really points to the fact that there is a definite need for supportive services for clients, including mental health care, and they don’t get that in an SRO," she said.

In addition to the safety concerns, Camden residents complained of "disgusting" room conditions, with frequent concerns about roaches and mice. The building has logged numerous formal complaints, including “mice everywhere,” cracks in the floors, hot water problems and no smoke detectors, Department of Buildings and Department of Housing Preservation and Development records show.

Charles Brown, 62, who moved into the Camden last year after being referred by HASA, complained the worst areas were the common spaces, including bathrooms and kitchens, which he said were only scrubbed when city higher-ups schedule a visit.

“It’s so nasty because you have 10 people using two bathrooms. When you go to the bathroom, you need your cup of bleach to wash off the toilets," he said. "They need to shut it down."

For Brown's "matchbox"-sized room, he said the city shells out between $1,200 to $1,800 a month, in addition to the $300 he is responsible for paying himself.

A spokeswoman for Human Resources Administration, which oversees HASA, said she could not confirm or deny that the Camden was under her jurisdiction because of patient confidentiality laws that prohibit the agency from discussing whether any particular building houses HIV patients.

"This is a tragic incident," she said. "We investigate any and all complaints concerning any of our facilities."

The HRA said while the costs of temporary emergency housing can vary, on average, SROs cost the city less than other emergency housing options, at $1,703 per month, versus $2,059 for transitional group housing.

Under city rules, homeless men and women with HIV/AIDS are not allowed to live in traditional homeless shelters. Instead, those needing temporary, emergency housing must be placed in “medically appropriate housing," with individual refrigerators to keep food and medicine cold and private bathroom facilities.

Agency figures show that, in May, HASA housed more than 1,650 people in emergency housing, with more than half — 990 — living in 20 community-based, non-profit transitional housing facilities, which typically offers a range of social services, such as medical help and counseling.

The other 774 clients were assigned to live in 26 private SROs, like the Camden, across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — which offer zero on-site supportive services — despite the fact that many residents suffer from advanced stages of HIV and AIDs, have chronic mental health problems and may struggle with severe drug addictions.

HASA noted the number of residents living in private SROs represents only about 2 percent of HASA’s 33,000 total clients, and that the number is down substantially from a decade ago, when 1,845 men and women with HIV and AIDs were living in emergency SROs.

"For people in need of emergency housing (people must be housed within 24 hours) and supportive services, SRO’s provide a temporary solution until a permanent residence is found," said the HRA spokeswoman.

HRA, meanwhile, insisted that HASA immediately investigates any reported incidents. It also employs a five-person team that inspects buildings at least four times a year to make sure they are "medically suitable." HASA case workers are also expected visit with their clients at the buildings periodically, and clients can file complaints with HASA and request to be moved, the spokeswoman said.

"Any illegal or inappropriate activity in these facilities will not be tolerated," she said.

One 31-year-old resident, who recently moved into the Camden and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that his room had been broken into twice over the past month half, with thieves making off with food and jewelry.

But he said that, while Camden was among the worst of the HASA-subsidized buildings, he puts up with the problems because it allows him to live independently.

“That’s a blessing to literally have your own room,” he said. “You can make that little room look like a palace."

Steve Tzolis, a celebrated restaurateur, is identified in Department of Finance records as the owner of the Camden. Tzolis did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

HPD records show the Camden is managed by Anastase Nicodimous, who is also listed as the emergency contact.

Reached by phone, Nicodimous said, "The investigating is still on — there is not any information I can give you at this time," before hanging up the phone.

Paulino's family said he, too, was a casualty of the lack of oversight at the Camden.

"Why didn't they do anything? Why didn't they give [Paulino] the services he needed?" asked Paulino's sister, Inez Reynoso, 39, of the Bronx, who said her family has been praying for Baisley.

"This was a senseless death."

Paulino's brother, Edwin Figeuroa, added that his brother had been prone to paranoia and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia after leaving the Army. He said Paulino moved into the facility thinking it would offer him treatment and medical care.

"Going in there, he thought he was going to get treatment, and he was going to get housing, and he thought it was a facility like that," he said. "It turned out to be nothing like what that was."