Formerly Unhoused Bronx Congress Candidate Vows to Fight for Drug Users

June 4, 2020

Samelys López knows first-hand the inadequacy of New York City’s⁠—and the nation’s⁠—approach to housing. When she and her family moved from her birthplace of Puerto Rico to the South Bronx, they entered the family shelter system.

After López graduated from Columbia University, having persevered through under-funded public schools and poverty, she got involved with the work of Congressmember José E. Serrano, the representative for New York’s 15th congressional district, which includes the South Bronx.

López is now campaigning as a Democratic Socialist to win the seat of the retiring Serrano later this year, looking to represent her home neighborhood and the many other people there who faced homelessness and other consequences of austerity policies. Her campaign has picked up the notable endorsements of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the trailblazing representative of some Queens and Bronx neighborhoods; Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender who narrowly lost the high-profile Queens district attorney race in 2019; and Naomi Klein, an activist and author of The Shock Doctrine.

Filter caught up with López to ask about how her campaign centering housing justice will fight for the health and safety of people who use drugs.

Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard: How do you plan to take on the racist War on Drugs if elected?

Samelys Lopez: We need to end the War on Drugs which has destroyed communities of color for generations. We need to legalize marijuana and expunge the criminal records of those who have been incarcerated for drug offenses. We also need to decriminalize controlled substances and so that doctors can more easily prescribe them to help patients struggling with addiction.

I am also supportive of drafting a reparations policy, so that we can give restitution to communities, particularly black and brown communities, whose lives have been destroyed by the War on Drugs. We can allocate revenue generated from marijuana legalization to fund this reparations project.

Housing is at the center of your platform. How have you seen housing’s importance play out for Bronxites struggling with problematic drug use or living with HIV? How are housing programs failing to meet their needs, and how do you plan to change that?

Lack of housing has been a pervasive problem for people struggling with drug use or who are HIV-positive. One of the biggest problems facing the South Bronx is housing affordability, housing discrimination, and lack of funding for programs to help these communities.

Access to housing and a broader support system is associated with better outcomes for those struggling with addiction and those living with HIV. Our campaign has made contacts with constituents who are HIV-positive, on the verge of losing their apartment, and don’t know what to do.

I will fight for a Homes Guarantee and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act to build 12 million units of affordable housing to end homelessness in this country in Congress.

In NYC, the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) provides HIV-positive patients with access to benefits (Medicaid, Food Stamps) to help them lead healthier lives. At the national level, the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS program provides healthcare services to low-income HIV/AIDS patients. We need to increase funding for programs like these to ensure that HIV/AIDS patients have access to all the resources they need to live longer and healthier lives.

We also need to expand the HASA program, which provides housing vouchers to low-income HIV/AIDS patients, so that they can access housing directly, as opposed to going through the shelter system. Furthermore, at the national level, we need to ensure these programs are available to all HIV positive patients, including those who are asymptomatic.

Some organizations in NYC construct supportive housing for people living with HIV/AIDS using the Supportive Housing Loan Program and the Homeless Housing Assistance Program (HHAP), administered by NYC. In the Homes Guarantee, we need to increase funding for these kinds of programs so that HIV/AIDS patients can be provided the housing they need to live healthier lives. We need to be inclusive in our approach to housing to ensure that no one gets left behind.

There is also much discrimination by Public Housing Authorities (PHA) against those suffering from drug abuse. We need to forbid PHAs from discriminating against those with substance abuse disorders and allocate increased funding for addiction treatment programs. Although having a home is associated with better outcomes for those suffering with addiction, we also need to invest in programs to help them with their addiction after we get them off the streets.

Sanctioned safe consumption sites (SCS) are operating in countries across the world—but not the United States. A pilot program has been proposed for our city, and the Bronx could be home to one of them. What is your position on SCS and how do you plan to integrate them into your platform and work, if elected?

I am supportive of supervised consumption sites; they are very useful for mitigating drug overdoses and limiting the spread of blood diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

As a member of Congress, I would be supportive of [the] funding of pilot programs, like the one proposed in NYC, for safe consumption sites so that we can help those struggling with addiction at the national level. The retiring congressman for this district, Jose Serrano, supported protecting syringe exchange sites and I want to continue his progressive legacy of caring for the community.

In December 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City had achieved UNAIDS’ 90-90-90 goals to end the HIV epidemic. Yet the only demographic group that has not enjoyed this progress is transgender women of color. As a Bronxite, how have you seen trans women of color treated by local, state and federal social services? How would you work to make government work for trans women of color?

Trans women of color are among the most forgotten members of society. Many have people in this community suffer extreme discrimination when they try to access resources that they need to survive in our community. One thing we need to do is ban discrimination against the trans community nationwide so that they can more easily access the help that they need.

I am also supportive of attacking the social problems facing trans women of color (homelessness, criminalization of sex work, and untreated mental illness) that hinder their ability to have better HIV outcomes. As part of my campaign, I am fighting for a Homes Guarantee to end homelessness nationwide, Medicare for All (with increased funding for mental health services), and decriminalization of sex work. These policies will go a long way of supporting trans women of color as they try to access HIV treatment.

The federal government still refuses to fund syringe services, despite overwhelming evidence that they improve the lives of people who use drugs and transgender people. As a US Congressmember, how might you advocate to end this decades-long ban?

I am supportive of funding syringe services. As part of ending the War on Drugs, we need to shift gears and focus on treating those who suffer from addiction and providing them with supportive services; that’s where we need to shift the political discussion at the national level. I would be more than eager to be a leader in that discussion on how to best treat those suffering from addiction.

What do you want New York’s unhoused folks, drug users, sex workers and incarcerated people to know about you as a potential future politician?

I am a formerly homeless Latina who grew in the South Bronx. I have experienced homelessness, food insecurity, underfunded schools, and the indignities of the welfare system. My experiences growing up are what inspired me to fight my entire life for affordable housing in NYC. As someone who struggled throughout her life, I promise to fight for those who are suffering and voiceless.


Photograph of Samelys López courtesy of her campaign

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