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.

Carlos borrowed a truck while Rolon and a friend gathered up what they could from the old place. Furniture went to another friend's house and to the PWAC thrift shop; boxes of clothes and household items went to the motel room. Some possessions, including an unfinished tapestry given to Rolon by a now-deceased PWAC client, were left behind in hopes they could be retrieved later.

Rolon, shaken by the realization she had a month before again facing homelessness, became deeply depressed. She stopped taking her AIDS medication and sat alone amid unopened boxes. "It's a slow form of suicide," she said then. "I worked with enough people at PWAC to know one stage for a lot of people [with AIDS] is fear. You become afraid of everything around you; you're intimidated by the smallest things, every noise, every person. That's how I am. If [the Haitian American Foundation] finds out I'm terminated from HOPWA, they're going to kick me out of here, too. I know I'm not the only one. How many people have died because they were just totally abandoned? I'm not asking for glamour. I'm just asking, 'Please let me live a few years without having to wrack my brains to stay alive.'"

That wave of desperation gradually receded, and Rolon resumed taking her medication. But because she's taking protease inhibitors, the newer AIDS drugs with extremely precise dosage requirements, it's possible they're no longer effective as she hasn't been diligently following the regimen. She either picks up or has delivered at least a half-dozen bottles of medication monthly, but is erratic about visiting doctors, and claims to have been "kicked out" of some medical offices for having a "bad attitude."

Sitting on the twin bed in the motel room, Rolon mentally replayed the scene the last time she had been at the HOPWA office. Details of the crisp, bright afternoon were fixed in her mind. Two days earlier, she remembered, she had asked Emil Heredia if she could make some agreement with Taylor to pay the outstanding $975, banking on the eventual approval of her SSI claim. "I was willing to have a legal document written up, even use an SSI lawyer, even add interest to it," Rolon says. "If [Taylor] wants a thousand straight, I'm willing to do it. Just to be able to get back on HOPWA. Emil said he was going to speak to her. When I came back to the office [two days later], he told me she wouldn't go for it and that I was terminated. I just stood there, then I busted into tears. I said, 'Emil, what do I do? Where do I go now?'"

When first contacted by New Times in late February, Heredia said Rolon couldn't continue in the program because she had not made any attempt to pay back her portion of the rent. "If she had made arrangements with the landlord to pay back that money," he explained, "we could make arrangements with her."

A few weeks later, on March 4, Heredia's account changed somewhat. "I believe [Rolon] had mentioned some repayment plan," he hedged. "I was trying to find out if there was some possibility she could remain in the program. I called the contact person at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) about making arrangements to pay, and [the contact person] said he'd have to check with his supervisor. That's when the supervisor told him it wasn't possible."

This was Heredia's first mention of the MDHA, which recently assumed oversight of the HOPWA program. The contact person at MDHA to whom Heredia referred was Juan Carlos Jusino, director of special programs. Jusino referred inquiries to his supervisor Maria Diaz de la Portilla, who referred inquiries to MDHA's director of public information Sherra McLeod.

On March 12 McLeod made the unexpected revelation that MDHA division director Dale Poster-Ellis had checked the computerized HOPWA file on Rolon and had found she wasn't in trouble after all. "Even though [Rolon] was evicted from that home, she is not out of the program," McLeod says. "We have not terminated her from the program. She needs to get back in touch with her social worker, who will get in touch with our staff. We don't want to abandon this client and leave her in a worse situation than she is now. I'm sure something can be worked out."

But why had Rolon been told just the opposite two months earlier? McLeod says she's trying to find out.

If the HOPWA debacle was a case of negligence and equivocation, Rolon's interminable experience with SSI seems to have been handled with little comprehension of reality -- her reality and that of other AIDS sufferers.

In December 1998 after deciding she needed some legal help, and having been turned down by several lawyers, Rolon brought her eviction notice to the Miami law firm Marder and Gonzalez, which specializes in Social Security disability cases. "We've been trying to help her find out what the hell is going on," attorney Lilli Marder says. "We wrote to Judge Kupersmith and told her our client came to a hearing in February 1996 and had not received a decision or correspondence. The client is in dire need and is unable to pay her rent. The lady justifiably is going crazy about this and needs to be taken care of. I would venture to say they could have lost the file. I've had this happen before, where cases go on for years when what's really happening is nobody can find them."

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