CHELSEA — A top civil rights lawyer plans to represent a group of people living with HIV who claim the city's largest AIDS organization is discriminating against them by forcing them to use a separate entrance to their offices from other visitors.
The AIDS service organization Gay Men's Health Crisis agreed to construct and use a separate entrance — built into a former loading dock — when it moved from West 24th Street to its new home at 446 W. 33rd St. in 2011.
The building has a main entrance shared with tenants including The Associated Press and WNET. But GMHC clients and visitors are discouraged by the organization's staff from using it, according to sources within the organization, and are directed to the separate GMHC entrance by building staff if they try to go through the main entryway.
GMHC founder Larry Kramer previously decried the entrance as a "Jim Crow" separation that stigmatized HIV-positive people. Those with knowledge of the controversy blame GMHC for agreeing to the separate entrance.
Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who was the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1985 to 2000, said he's met with numerous members of GMHC regarding the entrance.
"I'm troubled by what they've told me, specifically about a separate entrance," said Siegel, who has run for public advocate and has previously represented the Occupy Wall Street movement.
GMHC, which is behind the city's AIDS Walk and provides a wealth of health and support services to HIV-positive New Yorkers, was forced to move from its Chelsea home to the new space after a rent hike.
The new center, on the sixth and seventh floors of the building, provides meal services, a pharmacy and counseling to people with HIV. The organization repurposed a large freight elevator to bring patients from the ground-floor entrance to the office, and visitors are forced to ride up the giant elevator instead of using the building's smaller main ones.
"I wanted to make sure there's a bunch of people upset about the separate entrance," Siegel added. "There's a bunch of people, if not more, and I think they have a right to be upset."
Several longtime members of the organization, who asked to remain anonymous because they depend on GMHC's services, said the entrance further stigmatizes people with HIV, reminding them of a time during the onset of the AIDS epidemic when landlords forced AIDS organizations to have separate entrances.
One client said many patients, particularly those who have not publicly come out as being HIV positive, were terrified of being seen walking into an entrance plastered with GMHC's logo and would prefer to walk in anonymously through an office building's entrance.
Siegel would not say what specifically he found troubling about the separate entrance, and he hopes to meet with GMHC management this week in an effort to "amicably" resolve the issue.
"I think it's pretty obvious," he said. "It's best not to tell you what bothers me, since I think it's pretty obvious."
It was not clear who required the use of a separate entrance. The building's landlord, Broadway Partners, did not respond to requests for comment.
GMHC CEO Marjorie Hill said in a statement that the entrance was "very helpful" to GMHC staff, clients, members, volunteers and visitors, especially since the nonprofit moved from being the only tenant in its own building to one with many.
"The elevator can take 30 to 40 people, at one time, to the sixth and seventh floors where our offices are located. Additionally, our elevator reduces the stress in terms of wait time," she explained.
"Our entrance is staffed by GMHC employees who are specifically trained to welcome everyone into our safe and confidential environment. They can also offer immediate assistance to anyone who may be in crisis."
Hill added that she would be "pleased" to meet with Siegel next week to discuss the entrance.