Supes forum highlights AIDS issues
by Matthew S. Bajko
Housing and employment for people with HIV and AIDS, as well as city funding for prevention and health care, topped the list of issues discussed at a forum last week, the aim of which was to ferret out where candidates in three of this fall's San Francisco supervisor races stand when it comes to AIDS issues.
Fifteen people running for supervisor in Districts 6, 8, and 10 took part in what was billed as the city's first-ever HIV listening session with candidates for public office Friday, July 23. A panel of seven people living with HIV spent two and a half hours questioning the candidates on a random basis about numerous concerns.
While all of the candidates talked about how HIV has impacted their lives, several candidates' stories particularly stood out. Glendon Hyde, the drag queen known as Anna Conda seeking the D6 seat, disclosed how he has been HIV-positive for 21 years.
"My HIV can now drink legally," he joked.
Kidding aside, Hyde said he struggles to buy his lifesaving medications.
"One of the largest problems I have had with HIV in my life is being able to afford my drugs," said Hyde, adding that he would be missing his drug regimen until Monday due to a lack of funds.
Another HIV-positive candidate, James Keys, choked up in discussing how he had full-blown AIDS in 1999. A native of Oakland who had moved to New Orleans, Keys said he moved to San Francisco to find help and thanked the San Francisco AIDS Foundation for putting him "on the right track."
"San Francisco saved my life," said Keys, a gay man who chairs the San Francisco Mental Health Board and was a onetime aide to District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, who is termed out of office.
Two D6 candidates, out lesbian artist Debra Walker and gay business owner Jim Meko, spoke about the numerous friends they cared for and lost to AIDS in the early days of the epidemic.
Meko lived around the corner from the long gone gay bar Ambush, made famous in Randy Shilts's 1987 nonfiction account of AIDS' onslaught And the Band Played On. He recounted how he cared for one of his best friends as he wasted away and fell further into dementia.
"I met my best friend Matt Aronica at the Ambush. Bright guy. A lawyer who even argued cases before the California Supreme Court," said Meko, who brought with him a copy of Shilts's book. "I was the one to lift Matt's 90-pound emaciated body out of the bath and put him back to bed ... to deal with the ravages of dementia ... The night Matt died I spent three hours in the corner of a bar crying until closing time."
Having moved to San Francisco in 1981, Walker said it wasn't long before her gay male friends were being admitted into San Francisco General Hospital on a "minute by minute basis" due to the then little understood disease.
"I had dozens of friends move up from San Diego and Los Angeles because the hospitals there wouldn't care for them," said Walker.
In a sign of how little attention HIV and AIDS had received prior to last week's forum, all of the candidates were taken to task for not having anything about the city's HIV endemic on their campaign websites. As of Wednesday morning of this week, none had added a specific section discussing HIV or AIDS issues.
Even during last week's forum the candidates had few specifics for how they would ensure funds for HIV and AIDS would not be cut from the city's budget or where the money would come from to build affordable housing for people living with HIV or AIDS.
And the forum's format wasn't exactly equitable when it came to hearing from all of the candidates, who were seated alphabetically on stage. All 15 answered at least one question directed specifically to them as well as two yes-or-no queries everyone answered.
It was left to the seven panelists to decide who among the candidates would answer their questions, and several noted they had ties to certain campaigns. Tim Durning, president of the group San Francisco for Democracy, is the campaign treasurer for both Walker and D8 candidate Rafael Mandelman, a local attorney.
Randy Allgaier, director of the San Francisco HIV Health Services Planning Council, recused himself from asking specific questions to D8 candidates because of his outspoken support for Rebecca Prozan, an assistant deputy attorney on leave to focus on her campaign. Despite his backing of Mandelman, local architect Alan Martinez did not restrict himself from querying the D8 candidates.
Several candidates ended up answering four or more questions, while it was up to moderator Donna Sachet, a local drag persona, to ensure those the panel had overlooked were given a chance to address a question.
School board president Jane Kim, who is seeking the D6 seat, and Prozan both answered six direct questions, the most of anyone on stage. Deputy City Attorney Scott Wiener, running in D8, took five questions, while Mandelman and Walker both answered four.
The following are some of the more noteworthy answers from the candidates at the forum, broken out by district.
In the race to represent South of Market and the Tenderloin on the board, once again Kim dominated the discussion, as she has at other debates. Kim pledged she would work closely with nonprofits in determining how to prioritize cuts to the city's budget.
"I would work with community based organizations to make sure we have an equity lens on the budget so we are not making cuts in communities that need services the most," said Kim, who talked about losing several teachers to AIDS growing up in New York City.
In terms of housing, Kim wants to see another affordable housing bond passed by voters. And she said the city needed to do a better job of ensuring the "quality" of the numerous single-room-occupancy hotels where many low-income people live. She suggested setting aside whole floors or buildings as women-only to safeguard female tenants.
"We need to create safe environments for all of our residents," she said.
Theresa Sparks, a transgender woman who is the executive director of the city's Human Rights Commission, called for having a two-year budgeting process and holding meetings in the community about how to balance the city's finances. She also called for the creation of a HIV budget oversight panel.
"I think we should have an HIV/AIDS commission and it would have real say so in the budget. Right now it is an afterthought," she said. "Multi-year budgeting allows us to have a forward looking planning process."
Accounting for the fact some HIV-positive people eschew seeking full-time work so they do not lose their federal health benefits, Sparks promoted co-employment as one way to allow them to enter the workforce.
At the forum Walker was not asked about losing the support of former city AIDS czar Jeff Sheehy due to her answers to the questionnaire all candidates filled out prior to the event. As the Bay Area Reporter reported last week, Sheehy was particularly upset that Walker described HIV as a communicable disease similar to tuberculosis rather than a life-threatening chronic illness.
Zachary Richard with Bay Area Young Positives did ask Walker how to house LGBT youth who age out of publicly-financed programs. Walker said she has spent two decades working on the issue of how to pay for affordable housing in the city and wants to see more projects include supportive services on-site.
She also endorsed the idea of using city-owned parking lots in the Castro for housing LGBT youth and people living with HIV and AIDS.
"We need to create really affordable housing," she said.
D6 candidate Renato Cazares, a gay man who works in the education sector, also took part in the forum but was mostly overlooked by the panelists. In his opening remarks he talked about an elderly neighbo
The most significant news to come out of the forum among the candidates running to replace District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is also termed out this year, is that all the candidates, including Bill Hemenger, a gay business executive, said they back seeing a homeless shelter for LGBT and HIV-positive people built in the Castro along Market Street.
While Hemenger simply said "yes" when asked about supporting a shelter, the other three D8 candidates all added the caveat of wanting to work with neighbors to address any concerns.
Prozan, in answering a question posed to just her, suggested dedicating some of the below-market-rate housing developers of several Castro housing projects will be required to build for HIV-positive people. She also said she would like to see the city work with banks now in ownership of thousands of foreclosed properties on making them available for people living with HIV and AIDS as well as teachers, police, and firefighters.
In response to another question directed at them specifically, Prozan, Mandelman, and Wiener also pledged their support to seeing more affordable housing built within the Castro-centric district even if current residents expressed "strenuous objections" to the units. The three also stated they would back projects in other districts even if the area's supervisor were opposed.
"I would be willing to stand up and take the heat on that," pledged Wiener, who noted he opposed a push by neighbors to close down a Castro LGBT youth center when he lived on Collingwood Street.
Prozan recalled how D8 residents lambasted her when she worked for former Mayor Willie Brown as his liaison to the district for supporting the 1 Church Street affordable housing development.
"Ten years later it has now become the jewel of the neighborhood. People who opposed it tell me they can't believe I am now running for supervisor after what we did to you," she said. "It is not going to lessen property values."
Mandelman noted how he voted to approve a Hayes Valley project as a Board of Appeals member over the objections of the neighborhood.
"The neighbors were apoplectic. They were convinced it would destroy their neighborhood and I voted for the project," he said.
In terms of the budget, Prozan said she would want to see more information about the numerous nonprofits the city contracts with to provide services. In particular she said it would be important to know how many private donors they have.
"When dealing with community based organizations, you have to have a handle on what is happening on the ground," she said. "Look, next year isn't going to be any better. I wish it were."
Wiener also expressed concern that the city is increasingly relying on nonprofits. He called from more coordination between the groups and bringing them into the budget process so that city funds are better spent.
"We need to start looking at nonprofits that provide so many services as part of the city family," he said. "Part of the onus is on the nonprofit community to become more cohesive."
He also wants to see the city increase its reserves so there is a "better rainy day fund."
Of the four D8 candidates at the forum, Hemenger was asked the least number of questions. He did say he saw no need to raise taxes in order to balance the budget.
"I would cut some of the waste out of the budget first," said Hemenger, who worked for Oracle. "Raising taxes is always the easy answer."
Speaking as a private citizen and not a prosecutor, Prozan said she supports the legalization of marijuana and professed support for opening more medical marijuana dispensaries within D8. Currently there is one cannabis club operating within the supervisorial district on Market Street near Guerrero.
"I will use my office to make sure treatment for those in need of medical marijuana is available and safe," she said.
Chris Jackson, a straight black man who is on the city's community college board, criticized what he sees as a "lack of political will" to combat HIV issues within communities of color, especially in D10's Bayview and Hunter's Point neighborhoods.
He bemoaned the lack of community health clinics located in the city's eastern neighborhoods and called on developers of the mega housing project at the old navy shipyard to build a health care center.
"People have to travel across the city to get care," said Jackson. "We have been studying it for too long. We need action. We need a health clinic."
He also called for expanding on-the-job training programs so that HIV-positive people could find meaningful, long-lasting work.
"We need to create careers in San Francisco," said Jackson.
Another candidate, theater professional Tony Kelly, admitted he was ill informed when it came to HIV issues prior to the forum.
"Working on this questionnaire was definitely an eye opener," said Kelly, who directed the 2010 GLAAD Media Award-winning Off-Broadway show A Boy and His Soul.
Asked if ADAP, the government program that provides discounted AIDS drugs, is broken, Kelly responded more generically about the city's finances.
"Our budget system at this point is broken," he said. "It is not upside down, it is screwed."
Engineer Stephen Weber said he believes many city programs are "suffering from proper management" and that nothing should be protected from being cut.
"It has to be every issue of the budget needs to be looked at," he said.
Steven Moss, the publisher of the Potrero View community newspaper, said he doesn't see the need to pass a sit/lie law, the controversial ballot measure Haight residents are pushing to deal with aggressive panhandlers in their neighborhood. Because he is a father, he also expressed concerns about legalizing marijuana by the passage of state Proposition 19.
"We don't need to have sit/lie but I understand the philosophical need to have sit/lie," said Moss, who has assigned Shilts's book as required reading of his students in public administration at San Francisco State University. "On Prop 19 I am instinctively for it, but again, I have a 9-year-old daughter. My concern is not about crime, because no one smoking a joint ever committed a crime."
Notable for not being on stage were two people running for the D10 seat with strong ties to the LGBT community: BART board member Lynette Sweet and legislative aide Bill Barnes, a former AIDS czar under Mayor Willie Brown.
Barnes, a gay man who is HIV-positive, told the B.A.R. he opted to skip the forum because he felt it was unnecessarily politicizing HIV and AIDS issues. Sweet's campaign, which has been endorsed by Dufty and lesbian Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, said she was unable to attend due to a family emergency.