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Charles King's Holy War

There's nobody he won't take on in his crusade for homeless people with AIDS. Even the mayor. And that may have cost him $6.5 million.

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Even on the seventh day, Charles King doesn't rest. As the prime mover behind Housing Works, one of the city's largest and most lauded AIDS-service organizations, he has been working furiously to save his operation from imploding. Last fall, the Giuliani administration terminated all Housing Works's city contracts, worth about $6.5 million, or a third of its budget. The nonprofit fought back, engaging the city in a drawn-out lawsuit that King blusteringly calls "a struggle to the death." But while the city will undoubtedly survive its encounter with Charles King, the outlook for Housing Works is less certain.

Though his week is packed with budget meetings, legal skirmishing, and tense sessions with nervous staff members, King still conducts a Bible class every Sunday morning with a small group of what he calls his "clients." Wearing blue jeans and sporting a graying beard and long ponytail, King seats himself on a table in the solarium of the new Housing Works residence and treatment center on 9th Street and Avenue D. Some of the group are alert and attentive; others are listless, high on cocaine or heroin. King, who has two degrees from Yale -- from both the law school and the divinity school -- seems perfectly at home here. In fact, it is his home.

When the $5 million building was completed last year, House & Garden sponsored a gala opening. At the time, Senators Al D'Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, along with former Housing secretary Henry Cisneros, among others, were praising the organization for its innovative programs for the poor and sick. Housing Works not only provides shelter to homeless men and women with HIV or AIDS, it also offers drug treatment, job training, and employment. But just a few months after the gala, the City of New York accused Housing Works of mishandling government funds and ended all its contracts.

King says the cutoff has nothing to do with how the organization handles city money and everything to do with politics. He has been an incessant critic of Rudy Giuliani, and he believes Housing Works, along with its thousands of vulnerable clients, is yet another victim of the mayor's vengeful style of governing.

Still, King's theme this morning is reconciliation, and he kicks off the meeting with a few moments of silent prayer. Like schoolchildren, the group has a hard time settling down. But in his soothing preacher's cadence -- the 43-year-old Texan is an ordained Baptist minister -- King asks them to open their minds and listen for God's voice. Today's Bible passage is the reunion of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, Chapter 33. "This is a story of two brothers, one of whom has ripped off the other big-time," King explains. "Now Jacob's come back to face the music. And Jacob -- a manipulator and a conniver -- does not trust Esau."

Juan, who has full-blown AIDS, suggests that "Jacob has always been a schemer, so he thinks someone else is trying to do the same thing to him." Another client agrees. "He's always trying to get over on everybody," he says.

King has a preacher's conviction that the Old Testament can speak directly to the suffering in this room -- just as the Scriptures have fortified him in his own often troubled life. "Esau turns out to be a pretty gracious guy," he points out, "and Jacob has a hard time accepting that." He invites a bit more discussion, then sums it up this way: "It seems to me," he tells the group, "that this is a story about forgiveness."

Having grown up in south Texas, as the gay son of a right-wing fundamentalist preacher, King has had to travel his own long road toward forgiveness and self-acceptance. Housing Works, which he co-founded, is the culmination of that journey. The $20 million organization encompasses three day-treatment facilities, two residential buildings, five nonprofit businesses -- including three thrift shops and a used-book store with a café -- and provides subsidized apartments, drug counseling, clean syringes, health care, legal advocacy, and classes to thousands of clients. The organization cares for "the lowest of the underclass," King says. Eighty percent of the clients are drug-addicted, 40 percent are mentally ill, and a substantial number have criminal records.

"Housing Works takes in the most troubled segment of the homeless population," notes Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, "a group most other social-service agencies are unwilling or unable to deal with. There's no question that Housing Works is the leading pioneer in this arena."

Consistent with King's radical vision of a "healing community," the clients help run Housing Works. Of its 300 employees, more than 80 are formerly homeless, and a third of the seats on the organization's board of directors are held by current clients who still receive services. "Housing Works is all about building community -- building a family -- for people who don't have these things," explains King, whose own family disowned him. "We provide a place where they belong, where they matter."

Over the years, Housing Works has been touted as one of the most innovative AIDS organizations in the country. Celebrities like Tina Brown, Christy Turlington, and Donna Karan, along with private foundations and corporate donors like GE, Condé Nast, and Nautica, have helped raise millions of dollars. The East 9th Street residence-day clinic is considered a "project of national significance" by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Housing Works's entrepreneurial ventures, which include its thrift-shop boutique on West 17th Street (this month's W magazine calls it the hottest thrift store, "the place where the city's fashionistas drop off last year's Prada and Comme des Garçons"), are being studied by a group of foundations, led by the Rockefeller Foundation, as models for other nonprofits.

But this summer, after months of issuing late payrolls, defaulting on loans, and making ever-deeper cuts in its operating budget, Housing Works came close to bankruptcy. Last October, the Human Resources Administration, whose Division of AIDS Services and Income Support funneled millions of dollars to Housing Works every year, ended its funding. Even as several hundred Housing Works supporters held a demonstration outside HRA's offices to protest the cuts, the city issued a press release stating that its "Inspector General and independent auditors have discovered a history of financial improprieties at Housing Works that date back to 1992, including fraudulent endorsement of checks made out to landlords."


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