VOCAL has trained over 1,000 low-income people who are affected by HIV/AIDS, the war on drugs and mass incarceration in community organizing and advocacy skills. VOCAL’s community organizing has won significant victories for marginalized New Yorkers during the past decade. Here are some highlights:


Helped extend a version of the millionaires tax in New York, raising $2 billion in revenue through a more progressive tax code. We worked with allies to conduct a yearlong direct action campaign bringing attention to a proposed $5 billion tax break to wealthy New Yorkers earning over $250,000 at a time when safety net programs were threatened with cuts in the midst of a unemployment crisis.

New guidance expanding access to hepatitis C care and treatment in opioid treatment programs, where hepatitis C has overtaken HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death.

New order from NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly instructing police to stop making costly, racially-biased and illegal marijuana arrests that criminalize tens of thousands of young people of color every year.

Passage of the “911 Good Samaritan” law to prevent fatal overdose, in coalition with the Drug Policy Alliance and others. The law which encourages New Yorkers to call 911 if they experience or witness an overdose without fear of arrest or criminal prosecution for possessing small quantities of drugs or alcohol (if they are underage).

Prevented the elimination of housing and nutrition programs for 45,000 low-income people living with HIV/AIDS and their kids that Mayor Bloomberg sought to close through millions in budget cuts.

Prevented the closure of nearly 30 units of HIV/AIDS supportive housing through tenant organizing at the former North General program in East Harlem.


Passage of a new law expanding access to syringes to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C and requiring education for law enforcement. The law amended the New York State Penal Code to clarify that possessing new and used syringes obtained through public health programs does not violate paraphernalia or controlled substances laws. While syringe possession has been legal under the Public Health Law for nearly two decades, police continued to harass and arrest people for syringe possession because the Penal Code was never changed.

Passage of a new law ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York, which undermined the principle of one person, one vote, in coalition with Citizen Action, the Prison Policy Project and others. Until now, over 60,000 people in incarcerated in New York prisons have been counted where they are incarcerated instead of their home communities for the purpose of legislative redistricting, even though they have no voting rights and nearly all will eventually return home. This had the effect of inflating the voting power of small towns with prisons while diminishing the voting power of communities with high levels of incarceration.


Restored nearly $4 million for supportive housing programs serving low-income people living with HIV/AIDS with substance use and mental health issues. Working with City Council, we defeated Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to eliminate about half of the supportive services staff in housing programs that serve the most vulnerable New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. If the budget cut would have been approved, homelessness among people living with HIV/AIDS would have increased and medical care would have decreased.


Pushed the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to adopt a policy to address drug overdoses and injection drug use among residents in public shelters. The policy requires both workers and residents to be trained on responding to drug overdoses and permits residents to safely store syringes. The two leading causes of death in the single adult shelter system are drug overdoses and HIV/AIDS.


Prevented an illegal rent increase for over 4,000 formerly homeless people living with HIV/AIDS who reside in supportive housing. A proposal in 2006 by then-Governor Pataki would have doubled the rent contributions for clients in HASA supportive housing programs, which would have led to widespread arrears and housing loss among tenants living on federal disability income and Veteran’s benefits.


Advocated for passage of the Safe Housing Act, which provided a mechanism for tenants to seek immediate repairs in their homes when they were living in dangerous housing and landlords were unresponsive, in coalition with Make the Road NY, Housing Here & Now, NY Immigration Coalition and others. The bill became a Local Law in 2007.


Won a series of laws improving access to the welfare system, monitoring shelter conditions, and guaranteeing permanent, medically appropriate housing for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS. Following our successful HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration) Human Rights Watch campaign, NYCAHN launched the House Every One! campaign to advocate for the right to permanent housing for people living with AIDS. This campaign led to City Council passing and Mayor Bloomberg signing into law three measures that ensured homeless people living with HIV/AIDS are moved from emergency shelter into medically appropriate permanent housing on a timely basis (Local Law 50 of 2005 / Int 0535-2005), improved processing of housing and other welfare benefits and increase transparency (Local 32 of 2005 / Intro 0541-2005), and required creation of a central housing referral system and monitoring of shelter conditions (Local Law 51 of 2005 / Intro 0543-2005). Local laws can be viewed online through the City Council website.


Convened the Still We Rise Coalition to raise the visibility of issues affecting low-income New Yorkers during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in NYC. This multi-issue coalition brought issues that directly affected the lives of poor New Yorkers into the forefront of media attention during the RNC. Moreover, the relationships formed through this coalition created a foundation for future collaboration and ensured HIV/AIDS was included in broader social justice efforts in NYC.


Exposed the City’s use of illegal halfway houses for parolees living with HIV/AIDS. Advocacy by our Parolee Human Rights Project led to an award winning NPR story and an FBI investigation into one of the most corrupt landlords, which forced the City to stop using this illegal housing.


Strengthened the right to same-day and medically appropriate emergency housing for low-income New Yorkers living with AIDS. Through our Welfare Human Rights Watch project, NYCAHN members documented the City’s failure to offer same-day emergency housing that was medically appropriate for people with compromised immune systems. A series of court decisions in 2001 and 2002 order the City to immediately house homeless people with HIV/AIDS who had been denied emergency housing and ensure conditions met basic standards.


Advocated for the introduction of State legislation that would authorize Department of Health oversight of correctional healthcare services. Members of NYCAHN’s Parolee Human Rights Project early on identified the deplorable health services inside prisons and jails as a vital issue to address. New York has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS who are incarcerated in the nation, and rates of hepatitis C and other health issues are equally high.


Helped win dramatic reforms to the NYC Continuum of Care Coalition, which allocates federal homeless assistance funding through the McKinney-Vento program. Through the leadership of NYCAHN co-founder Jose Capestany, the previously closed coalition expanded seats for homeless people and more front-line service providers to have meaningful participation in decision-making. NYCAHN also published a series of interviews collected from homeless people living with HIV/AIDS part of our Oral History Project.

1999 – 2000

Participated in campaign that led to passage of the Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP) that allowed pharmacies and community-based organizations to make syringes available without a prescription to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. NYCAHN members worked with the Legal Action Center and others to promote the new law and develop community education materials.


Organizational members that founded VOCAL-NY, then known as the NYC AIDS Housing Network, worked to create a comprehensive local law codifying the City’s Division of AIDS Services, the right to medically appropriate emergency housing (not shelter) and a comprehensive list of rights. This remains one of the most progressive pieces of welfare rights legislation anywhere in the country.