Charles King’s Holy War

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.”

The last charge refers to an incident that occurred five years ago, in which a Housing Works employee, who has since died of AIDS, embezzled $100,000. Only $5,000 belonged to the city, and it was returned. But the mayor’s office claimed, based on an audit of fiscal year 1996, that the organization’s bookkeeping was suspect and that Housing Works owes the city $1 million.

After Housing Works contested the original audit, the city reduced that figure by half, but King maintains that all the money is fully accounted for. He admits that Housing Works’s finances and bookkeeping were sloppy at a time when it was experiencing rapid growth and expansion into new areas of service; he also points out that Goldstein Golub Kessler & Company, one of New York’s largest accounting firms, audited its books for the same fiscal year, and gave Housing Works a clean bill of health.

“The message has been very clear that if you are overly assertive or aggressive in your advocacy efforts, the city will strip you of your contracts,” says the head of another prominent social-services agency who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation. “It takes one’s breath away to see the speed and vigor with which the city has moved against this group. It’s chilling.” (Despite repeated requests, no one connected with the city would consent to be interviewed for this story.)

Last November, Housing Works responded by filing a lawsuit claiming that the contracts were terminated for political reasons and that the city had violated its free-speech rights. Housing Works subsequently won a key injunction in State Supreme Court that would have restored its contracts until final settlement of the suit in a trial that was originally scheduled for last May. But the city managed to stay the injunction and postpone the trial. As the court battle drags on, Housing Works has sunk deeper into debt, forcing it to scale back services to its homeless clients.

Like ACT UP, its ideological parent, Housing Works has been relentless, often strident, in its political advocacy on behalf of the homeless and the sick. King himself has been arrested for civil disobedience more than 50 times, and along with a motley (often large) band of protesters, he has regularly, publicly, and aggressively targeted city, state, and federal officials in a constant barrage of lobbying and demonstrations. As part of its regular political operations, Housing Works also faxes a weekly AIDS political-action newsletter to thousands of policy-makers and organizations around the country.

“From the beginning, we were committed to biting the hand that feeds us,” explains Virginia Shubert, a co-founder of Housing Works. Making good on that promise, Housing Works protesters have chained themselves to desks at Mayor Giuliani’s campaign headquarters and blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour. They disrupted President Clinton’s birthday celebration at Radio City Music Hall, unfurling neon-painted banners while twirling noisemakers and chanting. They have interrupted the mayor’s town meetings, have taken over city offices, and through their in-house legal department (with pro bono assistance from outside law firms) constantly sue the city.

King insists the Giuliani administration has pushed Housing Works to the brink of financial ruin not because of any fiscal improprieties but “in retaliation for our advocacy.” State Supreme Court justice Emily Jane Goodman, who is presiding over Housing Works’s lawsuit against the mayor’s office, seems inclined to agree. In the pretrial injunction she issued against the city, she stated that the “hostility of city decisionmakers” seemed to be a “motivating and retaliatory, vindictive factor in the City’s actions.” (The city’s attorneys claim that Judge Goodman is biased and have recently asked her to recuse herself.)

Housing Works’s fate, for better or worse, is bound up with King’s personality. It wouldn’t exist without him, but supporters worry that his defiant style may permanently damage the organization. Friends and associates describe him as “messianic,” “selfless,” and “fire-and-brimstone down to his bones.” A former Housing Works board member says, “He’s like the Mother Teresa of New York, the religious figure who makes everyone else feel like they’re in sin.” His missionary zeal even alienates potential allies, like leaders at GMHC, whom King often bashes as “accommodationists.”

Wherever he goes, King makes trouble. He always has.

King was raised in Rio Hondo, Texas, a small town of about 1,400 people 30 miles from the Mexican border. “I am a source of shame to my father,” King says, still noticeably pained by the rejection. The last letter King ever received from his father included a pamphlet entitled, “The Truth about the Homosexuals … 20th Century Sodomites!” Like his parents, none of King’s ten brothers and sisters have communicated with him since 1985.

“Just as I’m good now at antagonizing the mayor,” he says, smiling, “I was good then at antagonizing my father. I’m the kind of person who gets under your skin.” His father often responded by beating him, and as a 7-year-old, King was forced to eat his meals in a separate room and play alone for an entire month as punishment for refusing to assert that he would kill Communists should they ever overrun Rio Hondo. “I’m a defiant son of a bitch,” he says now with a laugh. Yet for much of his adult life, King, following in his father’s footsteps, was deeply involved in Baptist ministry – though on his own terms.

While attending Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, King took charge of the bus ministry at the First Baptist Church, a well-to-do, all-white congregation. The program consisted of ferrying congregants’ children to picnics and other genteel outings. “We began taking the bus into the barrios around the Huntsville prison,” King says. “Within a year’s time, we went from averaging 8 kids on our bus to over 100 kids. Then we added two more buses.”

Eventually, he was transporting 150 black and Hispanic children to the church’s Sunday school every week, something that caught the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan. A church schism ensued, leading to the resignation of the minister who had recruited King in the first place.

“That’s when I heard the call,” King says. He got a minister’s license from the Southern Baptist Convention – a preliminary step toward ordination – and became the third generation in his family to take up preaching. “But what I saw as my calling,” he hastens to add, “had more to do with ministering to those the church shut out.”

After finishing college, King left Huntsville in 1977 to become a minister at the First Baptist Church in San Antonio, hanging out late at night on street corners ministering to hustlers, prostitutes, and runaways. “He liked to push the envelope,” says Ron Willis, the minister who hired King at First Baptist. When he established a support group at the church for gay male prostitutes, King was asked to resign.

After running a shelter for abused children in Roundrock, Texas, for three years, King applied and was accepted to Yale Divinity School in 1981. His reputation as a campus activist brought him to the attention of the Reverend Curtis Cofield, senior pastor of Immanuel Church, New Haven’s largest black congregation. While still a student, King was recruited by Cofield to join his staff, and he ultimately became the first (and only) white man to be ordained by the Connecticut Missionary Baptist Convention in its 100-year history. King regarded Cofield “as my second father,” and their close relationship made King’s resignation from the church, at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in 1985, especially painful.

AIDS first showed up at the doorstep of the church in the form of a prostitute who worked on a street corner near Immanuel. When she died, King helped bury her. Not long afterward, King, who kept his own sexuality well-closeted, found himself alone in the hospital room of the church’s minister of music, who was dying of AIDS.

“I asked him if I could pray with him,” King remembers. “His response was that it wouldn’t do him any good: God was punishing him because he was a homosexual. I told him that couldn’t be true, because if God was punishing him then I’d be in a bed, too.”

The two men cried, then prayed together. King got in his car, drove to Immanuel, and walked into Cofield’s office. “I told him I hated to do this to him – but I was going to come out,” King recalls. “There were people in my parish dying who believed that God was punishing them. By not being out, I was complicit in that.”

Though Cofield said he would stand by him, King knew that his staying on as a white gay minister in a black inner-city ghetto would push the church’s tolerance to its limits. He resigned and gave up his calling. For the next year, he drove chartered buses; then he entered law school, ending up once more at Yale. Karen Porter, a fellow student, recalls that King, then 32, had a “Jesus Christ kind of presence, the ponytail with cowboy boots and jeans, sometimes a tweed jacket, maybe a T-shirt with some slogan on it.”

After graduating in 1989, he worked as a staff attorney for Virginia Shubert, who was then head of the AIDS Project at the Coalition for the Homeless. He spent his free time volunteering for ACT UP’s housing committee, where he met Keith Cylar, now a co-executive director of Housing Works.

By 1990, it became clear to the three of them that no existing organization or government agency was equipped to deal with the thousands of homeless people with AIDS who were also burdened with long histories of drug addiction and mental illness. King, Shubert, Cylar, and several others conceived Housing Works, and over the next seven years, it grew from a $50,000 shoestring operation to become one of the largest AIDS-service organizations in the country.

King’s home is on the fifth floor of Housing Works’s residence on East 9th Street. The new brick-and-glass building is on a patchwork block of tenements and empty lots where you will occasionally come upon a junkie kneeling by a parked car, a hypodermic needle in his arm. Housing Works clients shoot up, too, but they use clean needles in the privacy of their own apartments. This controversial “harm reduction” policy isn’t meant to encourage drug use, explains King, but is designed to allow clients to bring their lives under control while continuing to receive housing and supportive services.

King lives with 36 men and women – Housing Works clients whose drug addiction, physical impairment, or mental illness severely limits their ability to function in the outside community.

Everyone has a studio apartment, and King’s furnishings are no different from anyone else’s – except that his apartment is smaller than the rest. There’s just enough room for a single bed, a night table, a bookcase, a microwave oven, and a small refrigerator. On his bedside table are A. N. Wilson’s biography of Jesus (a birthday gift from Shubert) and the collected works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

As co-executive director of Housing Works, King earns a salary of $80,000, though he donates nearly a third of it back. Last year, he received a $50,000 settlement from the City of New York after a police sergeant repeatedly rammed his head into the front door of his last apartment building, sending King to the hospital, but he donated this sum to Housing Works as well, making him one of the organization’s “major donors,” right up there with George Soros’s Open Society Institute and Phil Donahue.

On a recent Saturday, after the weekly 10 a.m. “advocacy meeting” with clients, King walks along 9th Street, through Tompkins Square Park toward Greenwich Village, to begin his weekly inspection of Housing Works’s various operations.

These Saturday tours take him – in the role of entrepreneur and business executive – to Housing Works’s three thrift shops (on West 17th Street, Columbus Avenue, and East 77th Street). “We see ourselves as the Barneys of thrift shops,” he explains with a smile. It helps, of course, when the hand-me-downs are discarded by the likes of Isabella Rossellini, Bette Midler, and Brooke Shields, or donated by fashion houses from Versace to Mizrahi to Chanel. The Used Books Cafe on Crosby Street operates on similar principles. The stores generate nearly $6 million in annual revenues to help fund other Housing Works programs – and they also create jobs. Housing Works clients who complete its job-training program are guaranteed full-time employment somewhere in the organization, starting at $20,000 a year, plus benefits.

The showdown with the Giuliani administration has cost Housing Works dearly. This summer, the nonprofit finds itself $1.2 million in debt (including legal fees to an outside firm, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, for its suit against the city) and struggling to maintain a basic level of services to its clients. Though the organization has recently cut enough expenses to operate on a break-even basis, “it’s still touch and go,” admits King. “We’re dancing through a lot of minefields.”

King describes the current legal battle as “a war of attrition,” and he believes delay is part of the city’s strategy to shut Housing Works down. The city’s attorneys have successfully postponed a trial for at least several months – a trial that the city is well aware it could ultimately lose. Housing Works filed motions in response that aim to reinstate a quick trial before even more programs and services must be eliminated. An appellate panel’s decision on the motion is expected any week now.

“They know they’ve put us in a precarious financial position,” says King. “They’re trying to win this on the ground by stalling.” Still, he remains defiant. “Every day that Housing Works keeps its doors open,” he insists, “we make a powerful statement to the Giuliani administration.” Though it is gradually losing its leases on its city-subsidized apartments, Housing Works continues to serve 2,000 clients (down from 5,000); it still provides homes to nearly 1,000 people with AIDS; and every couple of months, its own legal department hauls the city into court in dogged attempts to protect the services and benefits that the city’s Division of AIDS Service and Income Support is legally obligated to provide to people with AIDS. At present, it has five separate legal actions against the city.

Critics may rightfully fault King for being tone-deaf to the political realities of the day and for antagonizing an administration that despises his ACT UP-style flamboyance. But King refuses to tone down the rhetoric. “You can never underestimate how unpopular our constituency is, and that’s only getting worse and worse,” he says. “We’re the only remaining forceful critic in the arena of AIDS policy – certainly the most outspoken.”

Just two weeks ago, the New York Civil Liberties Union represented Housing Works in a test case challenging Mayor Giuliani’s order that bans large gatherings on the steps of City Hall. Housing Works won a federal injunction against the city (and a story on the front page of the Times’s Metro section). The next day, it jubilantly held a press conference and rally at City Hall that took the mayor to task for his failure to enforce Local Law 49, a city ordinance designed to safeguard and improve existing services to people with AIDS. Against a backdrop of placards that branded Giuliani an “AIDS criminal,” King declared, to a crew of local newspaper reporters and TV cameras, “It’s remarkable that a mayor who has made his name on law and order can so flagrantly disregard the law when it comes to providing for people who are poor or respecting the rights of people who criticize his administration.”

It was a sweet victory – but Housing Works’s future still remains uncertain. On a recent morning, King sits in his new office at the Crosby Street headquarters. As a cost-cutting measure, he has been relocated from the building’s airy seventh floor (which has been rented out) to a windowless basement. “We built everything by being willing to put everything on the line,” says King. “The stakes keep getting higher, but that doesn’t mean the strategy should change.”

Even without city funds, even if Housing Works loses its battle against the city, King is confident it can survive – pared-down, perhaps, but still vital. The retail businesses – its most reliable source of income – are doing well, and there is still strong support from private donors. “If we keep our doors open,” he insists, “no matter how small we get, we win.”

Charles King’s Holy War