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Photo Essay: For People With AIDS, a Sanctuary in Peril

June 3, 2011

Photo Essay: For People With AIDS, A Sanctuary In Peril

For 26 years, the Momentum Project has provided millions of meals to poor New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. If Mayor Bloomberg's budget goes through as proposed, however, he will eliminate the project's entire grant -- which totals less than $1 million -- forcing the program to shut down.

Momentum provides more than 200,000 meals each year, but it is far more than just a place for dinner. Its four meal sites, which are located in church basements around the city, serve as sanctuaries for the most marginalized people with AIDS. Momentum also links people to services such as drug use programs and food stamps, acting as a critical entry point for getting the hardest-to-serve into care.

"To see Momentum just vanish makes me incredibly sad," said Tyrone Tucker, a father of two who first came to Momentum eight years ago. "They helped me to help myself."

Because the program is low-cost but reaps high rewards, AIDS advocates have criticized Bloomberg's cut as penny-wise and pound-foolish. This week, Housing Works visited the Momentum meal site in the Bronx to photograph the people who will suffer if it disappears. These are their stories. Photos by Julie Turkewitz for Housing Works.

Vincent, 42, Bronx Photo 1

Momentum's meals help Vincent get by when food stamps aren't enough. Because food is essential for taking many HIV medications and because good nutrition lessens some of the debilitating symptoms of HIV/AIDS, Momentum's meals act as a safeguard for people who cannot stay healthy on limited incomes. "Between my medication and the heat, I know I'll wither away," Vincent said. "Here I have all my basic food groups."

Salvador, 37, Bronx Photo 2

Salvador is new at Momentum. He said the Bronx site already feels like home.

Aida, 46, and Lizzy, 45, Bronx Photo 3

Aida and Lizzy met in Puerto Rico before moving to New York. They are just one of the many couples who eat at Momentum on a regular basis. "It's like family here," said Lizzy.

Sixto, 70, Manhattan Photo 4

Sixto first came to Momentum more than a decade ago. He railed against the budget cut that would shutter the program. "The city has the money," he said. "Bloomberg should take it from the lottery."

Ronald, 46, Bronx Photo 5

"This program has helped me a lot," said Ronald, who chairs Momentum's Client Advisory Board. "We've lost a lot of staff members, and we've got to fight for this funding."

Tyrone, 42, and his son, Brooklyn Photo 6

Eight years ago, Tyrone walked into a Momentum site looking for a meal. He was wary of authority, using drugs and sleeping in a shelter. He'd also lost custody of his children. A Momentum staffer pulled him aside, helped him sign up for a drug program and gave him a referral for anger management classes. "It's been a big inspiration," he said. "They helped me to help myself." Because of these changes, he will regain custody of his two children, Kyshawn, 6, and Briana, 4, this summer.

Richard, 49, Brooklyn Photo 7

In his 14 years with Momentum, Chef Richard has seen the program expand to nine locations -- and then shrink to just four as HIV falls off politicians' priority lists. He's not sure where he'll work if the program closes. "I would say to Bloomberg: This is incredibly necessary. Stop this cut."

Yesenia, 34, and her son, Bronx Photo 8

At Momentum, Yesenia found a safe space to ask questions about HIV. She moved to the U.S. three years ago from the Dominican Republic, where HIV stigma is still strong. "I see people just like me here, and I feel better," she said. "They treat us well, and they feed us well."

Jafiza, 59, Queens Photo 9

Jafiza has worked as a nutritionist at Momentum for 14 years. Her favorite success story? Oscar, a man who admitted he'd eaten just rice and ketchup for months after losing his job. She nursed him back to health and made sure he received food stamps and Medicaid. "For me, this has been a real professional satisfaction," she said. " I don't understand why they have to make such dramatic cuts when something is working so well."

Learn more about the Momentum Project.

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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