Down and Out in Miami-Dade County

Poor, unemployed, stricken with AIDS, and at the mercy of government bureaucrats. No wonder Vivian Rolon's life is hell.

"She would come home real tired in the afternoon and just go into her room and close the door and lie down," he recounts. "One time I found a Baggie. Then I saw a syringe. I sorta figured it out after a while. I'd come up and say, 'Mom, let's go grocery shopping.' I knew that was the last thing she was up to doing, and I really didn't want to, but it was my way of letting her know that I knew."

Rolon eventually decided she needed to check herself into a rehabilitation center, but she says she couldn't find any publicly funded residential programs for heroin addicts. "You have to be a crackhead," she observes with barely disguised bitterness. So she signed up with a methadone clinic. She says she quit methadone a few months later after the clinic kept increasing her dosage. She still sees friends from her junkie days but asserts she kicked the heroin habit on her own.

In the fall of 1998 Carlos moved out of the two-bedroom apartment and into Yamilet's cottage. Then, Rolon says, she was hospitalized again with an episode of the pneumonia that had first attacked her four years earlier. She says she also decided around this time to find a different apartment. By her account the rats, swarming termites, roaches, and heat (there was only one air conditioner) had become unbearable.

She found a smaller, less-expensive apartment and notified HOPWA of her choice. HOPWA clients can live where they want as long as the housing is inspected and certified at least once per year by a Miami-Dade County health inspector. The clients, too, have to be recertified by HOPWA each year as a way to monitor their health and income. Rolon was in the process of recertification at the same time she was planning to move to the smaller apartment.

But before anything was finalized, Rolon's leaking air conditioner caused part of the ceiling in the apartment below to collapse, according to landlord Monique Taylor. When Taylor entered the upstairs unit to let workmen in, she was appalled. "I can't even find a word to describe it -- unbelievably unsanitary," Taylor recalls. "Dishes were all over the sink so full of rotten food and soaking in water that the stench -- you wanted to vomit. I opened the refrigerator and slime was actually oozing from all the rotten stuff. Here was a person in the last stages of the disease living in filth. I absolutely flew off the handle because not only did she not pay her portion of the rent, but I was under the impression she had home visits or some form of supervision, so the condition of the apartment had not even entered my mind until then. I just immediately closed the door and went to the HOPWA office on 79th Street. I had to start eviction proceedings. It was as much for the condition of the apartment as for nonpayment [of rent]. However, nonpayment is the legal reason I had to use. It was clear to me this lady can't live alone and be responsible for her well-being." Taylor calculated that Rolon owed her $975, a low figure considering the length of her tenancy.

Rolon responded with a long letter to HOPWA lashing out at Taylor for not fixing a leaking pipe and leaking refrigerator, and for allowing rats, roaches, and termites to infest the building. Taylor isn't the only landlord who has accused Rolon of trashing her living area, though Rolon adamantly insists she can't stand living in unsanitary conditions and that she's being unjustly trashed. She insists her sister and brother-in-law had been helping her clean the two-bedroom in preparation for moving out. But she concedes it's been years since she has had the energy to do very much housework.

None of that would be much of an issue, though, if HOPWA had not cut off Rolon's benefits this past January. Under the federal HOPWA guidelines, nonpayment of rent is among several violations for which a client can be expelled from the program. That doesn't mean the client must be expelled, or "terminated" in HOPWA lingo, but it's one cause for termination.

After Taylor informed HOPWA she was initiating eviction proceedings, Emil Heredia, an OCS social worker in charge of the 79th Street office's long-term HOPWA clients, told Rolon he had to remove her from the program. The implications were chillingly clear: Without HOPWA she couldn't pay rent on anything bigger than a bus station locker.

Heredia neglected to inform Rolon that she could appeal the termination; however, he says he thought she knew because months earlier she had received a document advising all applicants of their right to appeal any HOPWA decision. Rolon says she didn't know any of this until late March, at which time she made a written appeal.

Rolon says she had missed a December court date regarding her eviction because official notification didn't arrive in the mail until the day of the hearing. Subsequently an eviction notice appeared on her door. As 1999 began Rolon was still living at the NE 26th Street apartment but panicking at the prospect of being thrown into the street. She called the Haitian American Foundation because she knew the organization sometimes provided emergency housing through HOPWA. She didn't tell them she'd just been terminated, and they agreed to pay for a month's stay in Stephan's International Motel on Biscayne Boulevard.

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