In 1990, four members of the legendary AIDS activist group ACT UP—Keith Cylar, Charles King, Eric Sawyer, and Virginia Shubert—decided to dedicate themselves to serving one of New York City’s most neglected populations: the tens of thousands of homeless men, women, and children in New York City living with HIV and AIDS. The activists called their new group Housing Works because they believed that stable housing was the key to helping HIV-positive people live healthy and fulfilling lives and to prevent the further spread of the virus.
In 1995, Housing Works opened its first Thrift Shop, a pioneering idea in thrift store retail: Stylishly presented and frequently rotated merchandise sold not at rock-bottom prices, but at irresistible-bargain prices. While many were skeptical, the Thrift Shop proved it could raise significant amounts of revenue for services for people living with HIV/AIDS. The Thrift Shops paved the way for other Housing Works social enterprises, including our Bookstore Cafe.
Housing Works vision of financial independence was timely. In 1997, we found ourselves engaged in a war with then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani over his administration’s AIDS housing policies, prompting his administration to cut off city funding to Housing Works. Housing Works sued, and later won a $5 million judgment against the city. Nonetheless, we learned the invaluable lesson of earning our own money. Today, earned income from our social enterprise businesses, health care and other services accounts for approximately 90 percent of our revenue.
That revenue has allowed Housing Works to become the largest community-based AIDS service organization in the United States, as well as the nation’s largest minority-controlled AIDS service organization. Since our founding, we have provided lifesaving services, such as housing, primary care, job training, and legal help, to more than 20,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.