At about noon on Tuesday, April 21, Carlos Rolon tried to wake his mother Vivian, who had been sleeping on a mattress in the kitchen of his Hialeah apartment. Carlos became alarmed when she didn't open her eyes. He held his ear to her chest and thought he heard a heartbeat. Then his two sisters, Tisha and Veronica, tried to revive their mother, also unsuccessfully. They called Hialeah paramedics, who quickly determined that Rolon was dead, apparently from natural causes.
Rolon, who was 44 years old, had AIDS and suffered from several related ailments, but she had not seemed particularly ill, according to her family. She was distraught over difficulties in securing basic needs such as shelter and medical care. The vicissitudes of Rolon's dealings with AIDS service agencies were central to a New Times cover story, "Down and Out in Dade County," which was published just a week before her death.
Rolon had been despondent over a recent failure to recoup federal rental assistance, which had been terminated in January; without that aid, she had nowhere to go and was forced to seek lodging in her son's crowded one-bedroom apartment. Rolon had no source of income, although she received free groceries and limited medical care through three public assistance programs.
The Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office lists the cause of Rolon's death as "not known," pending results of toxicology tests. No autopsy was performed, and her body has been cremated.
Rolon, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, moved to Miami in 1980 and was divorced in 1981 from the father of her four children. She had been a clerk and medical assistant and, after testing positive for HIV in 1994, did advocacy work for the People With AIDS Coalition (PWAC).
Losing her rental assistance wasn't Rolon's only difficulty. At the time of her death, she had been waiting more than three years for a judge to decide her claim for federal disability benefits. That delay came despite a declaration more than a year ago by her physician that she was permanently unable to work.
The three-year lapse is at least four times longer than is usual, Social Security spokesman John Raffa acknowledges. One significant reason for the delay was that Rolon often missed required medical appointments, he asserts. (Rolon insisted she never received notification.) Although she recently completed the necessary medical exams after inquiries by an attorney and New Times, a decision on her case would likely have taken months.
It also appears the government unjustly took away Rolon's rental assistance. She had been a client of the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) program. But in January she was evicted from an apartment where she'd lived for eighteen months; she had failed to pay her share of the rent, $125 per month, which violated HOPWA tenant requirements. Thus Emil Heredia of the Miami-Dade Office of Community Services (OCS), which administers HOPWA, terminated her aid.
Heredia concedes that he did not tell Rolon she had the right to appeal. Nor did he mention HOPWA regulations that should have kept the money coming. (She had found another apartment at a lower price). "During the period of time in which the client is involved in appeal of the termination decision, his/her assistance shall not be terminated," the City of Miami HOPWA Program Policies and Procedures handbook states.
After finally learning of her options at the end of March, she formally sought a hearing.
Heredia maintains Rolon should have known her rights; they were printed on documents she had signed when she was accepted at least two years ago as a HOPWA client. It's reasonable to assume, though, that a sick person with pressing financial concerns might forget what she had read years before.
Rolon's case is complicated. There's no disputing that she broke some HOPWA tenant rules, which caused termination of her aid. But the program exists to house indigent people with AIDS, and the failure of OCS to follow HOPWA rules resulted in three months of virtual homelessness for Rolon.
The Miami-Dade Housing Authority (MDHA) oversees the administration of HOPWA for the county. MDHA administrative hearing unit supervisor Ellis Dames, who presided over Rolon's April 19 hearing, agrees that Rolon should have been informed of her rights. "She had not been aware, and that's unfortunate," Dames comments.
It's impossible to assess whether Rolon's abandonment by the system contributed to her death. Undoubtedly the bureaucratic difficulties added chaos and stress to her already precarious existence. But she was like thousands of other indigent AIDS victims who struggle with myriad personal problems, some self-created, who often refuse (or are too sick) to help themselves.
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She had a history of sporadic illicit drug use, and some who knew her think she may have committed suicide (perhaps overdosing on the many prescription medications she was taking).
Rolon's family is convinced she simply died in her sleep. "She would have left a letter; she would have expressed what was going on in her mind," Rolon's sister Leticia Rivera says. "We're going to let her be. She's not suffering now."
A few days after her death, Rolon's son and two daughters traveled from Miami to Comerio, Puerto Rico, a tiny hamlet in the mountains south of San Juan. Rolon always spoke of Comerio as her hometown. Her parents lived there before immigrating to New York in the Fifties, and much of the extended family never left. Her mother, who lives in New York, also flew to Comerio (Rolon's father died in 1997). This past week Rolon's nephew Alfredo Marco shipped her ashes from Miami to Comerio, where the family held a memorial service and scattered her remains on the rocky earth.