Casa Betsaida's chapel. (Photo: Mary Reinholz)

Casa Betsaida’s chapel. (Photo: Mary Reinholz)

The former convent on Hewes Street is a mystery house: there’s no sign outside announcing its name or mission. People walk in and out of the two-story building quietly, most of them black and Latino men largely unnoticed in this Satmar Hasidic part of South Williamsburg. One 34-year-old man, from Guatemala, paused to talk to this reporter and then was on his way, in a hurry to get a prescription filled.

The man is HIV positive, taking chemical cocktails to keep a killer disease at bay. He’s one of 27 similarly infected undocumented immigrants who live in $900 rooms in the federally funded residence known as Casa Betsaida. It’s been part of Catholic Charities, Brooklyn and Queens, since 2009.

(Photo: Mary Reinholz)

(Photo: Mary Reinholz)

Named after the pool where Jesus is said to have healed the paralytic, Betsaida was founded in 1993 by Msgr. Brian Karvelis, beloved pastor of Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church around the corner on Marcy Avenue. It was a hospice then, created for mostly Latino men dying of AIDS. Before Karvelis died in 2005, he secured city funding for the residence which has acquired an international reputation among agencies serving “difficult to reach” people living with HIV. They receive three meals a day and an array of support services including counseling, medical and legal referrals, and escorted trips to hospitals.

When the fiscal year begins on July 1, Casa Betsaida will operate with a grant of more than $1 million from Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS, a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal. That amount — administered by the city’s health department via the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Service — is slightly larger than previous annual grants of $1.36 million, and will also cover 50 low-income HIV positive immigrants with histories of homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse who live in supervised scattered site housing around the city. The total number of residents is 77, ten more than last year, according to a knowledgeable source.

Casa Betsaida declined B+B’s requests to interview current tenants at the Hewes Street residence, citing concerns about confidentiality. “We don’t advertise what we do here,” said social worker Charles Cintron, Betsaida’s on-site clinical manager. “There’s discrimination against homosexuals with AIDS in the Latino community. People here have suffered because of it. They have to be careful about their communications.”

Portrait of (Photo: Mary Reinholz)

Portrait of Msgr. Brian Karvelis.(Photo: Mary Reinholz)

But the agency allowed us to speak to “graduates” of Betsaida, including a vivacious blonde transsexual from Mexico named Maraya Perez who was referred by another source. She came to the house in 2003, a year after she was diagnosed with HIV while living with a relative in the Bronx.

“I had diarrhea and knew something was wrong,” she said. She admitted the cause was unprotected sex — but, she noted, “I learned new social skills here.” She proudly displayed a driver’s license and work permit (the latter obtained with the help of Central American Legal Assistance, a non-profit housed in the basement of Transfiguration Church) and murmured, “I’d like to do housekeeping work.”

Perez, 45, looks fit. She takes five pills a day, including the controversial drug Truvada, to control her virus, and also receives twice monthly hormone injections to grow her breasts. According to her case worker Juan Carlos Sandoval, who acted as translator, Medicaid pays for the treatments (Perez gained access to public benefits after she filed an application for political sanctuary at CALA). Sandoval called the hormone treatments “necessary for her mental and physical health. When she sees herself in the mirror becoming a woman, she’s happy and healthier.”

Perez (Photo: Mary Reinholz)

Maraya Perez (Photo: Mary Reinholz)

Sandoval first met Perez in 2005 when he was working at the Latino Commission on AIDS, an advocacy and social service group in Manhattan. She was Juan Perez then. “She was dressed like a man and was so quiet and withdrawn. Then suddenly, through the drug therapies, she became a different person,” he said. “Now she’s Maraya, very happy and outgoing.”

He said Medicaid would probably support a sex change operation for her, “but that takes time. It’s the last step in the process of her being a woman.”

Maraya grew up as Juan in a small Mexican farming community, the fourth of eight children. Her smiles turned to tears as she recalled taunts and “threats” from locals and said her father rejected her and called her a “puto” (male prostitute) for the way she dressed. Sandoval said she fled to the U.S. in 2001, courtesy of a coyote or human trafficker.

Maraya is one of about 220,600 Latinos living with HIV in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV is a “serious health threat to Latino communities, who bear a disproportionate share of the HIV burden in the United States.” Latinos account for 16 percent of the U.S. population but 19 percent of people living with HIV and an estimated 21 percent of new infections (9,800) each year.

Antonio (a name he took for the interview), is a wiry 34-year-old immigrant from Mexico who lived at Betsaida for three years. He also remembered being ridiculed and “persecuted” in his community in the Mexican state of Puebla. When he was 17, he and a group of teenagers crossed the border into Baja, California from Tijuana. An older sister, he said, paid the coyote $800 for the ride.

A room at Casa Betsaida)

A room at Casa Betsaida)

From there, he made his way to Queens, where a brother lived, then moved in with the owner of a deli where he had taken a job. Antonio switched from rapid-fire Spanish to English to recall the precise day –“May 1, 2001”– when he was diagnosed as HIV positive at Elmhurst Hospital after his fellow workers at the deli found him unconscious on the floor of his room.

At Elmhurst, he was referred to Betsaida. He often returns to see friends and attend a weekly support group.

Antonio applied for political asylum with the help of a pro bono lawyer and has a green card now, but said, “I can’t work.” Sandoval said Antonio has limited use of his left hand, as a result of his HIV infection. He lives in one of Catholic Charities’ scatter site apartments in Queens and has a steady boyfriend. He gets free condoms at hospitals (Betsaida doesn’t provide them) and controls his HIV with three pills daily. Asked whether he plans to get married, Antonio grinned and shook his head, signifying no way.

In contrast, Maraya Perez said she lives with a boyfriend–“a black American”–in a Cyprus Hills apartment leased through Catholic Charities from HOPWA. She wants to marry him and looked disappointed when reminded that the Catholic Church does not permit same sex marriages.

Why would Catholic Charities reach out to a population whose homosexual lifestyle the Church has long condemned? “We serve a need in the community and we serve with compassion,” said Jose Morales, Catholic Charities’ director of field operations. He claimed Betsaida was a unique service for HIV positive immigrants. “No other program in the city,” he said, “provides the housing, provides all the support and the case management, the counseling” for preventive measures and behavioral changes, including abstinence.

A kitchen area in a room at Casa Betsaida.

Kitchen area in a room at Casa Betsaida.

“They find here a place where there is no judgment, a community that is safe,” said Sandoval. “When they feel safe, they start to get better.” With earnestness, he observed: “If we don’t help them their virus is going to grow–and they might infect other people. It doesn’t matter whether they’re legal or illegal.”

None of the staff at Catholic Charities knew of a former Casa Betsaida resident, Richard Torres, an undocumented immigrant who lost his lease when New York City’s Division of AIDS Services failed to pay his rent in 1998. Torres, now deceased, joined a successful class action suit in 2001 against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and several city agencies for imposing budget cuts that made it difficult for people living with AIDS to obtain public benefits.

These days, some of Betsaida’s tenants who hold jobs spend 30 percent of their income on rent under their leases, said a source who asked to remain anonymous. He claimed that several have subsidies from the New York City HIV/AIDS Services Administration. But Cintron insists that most of the funding for Casa Betsaida goes towards helping the majority of tenants who live there: undocumented immigrants with no government benefits at all. He claims their illegal status creates more anxiety for them than a deadly but now manageable disease considered an epidemic in Brooklyn.

“If you look at the whole picture, HIV is minor to them because they have all these other problems,” he said. “They say, ‘I have nowhere to live, I may not have legal rights.’ When you combine all these problems, there’s depression. But the HIV is under control and they’re healthy if they take their meds.”

(Photo: Mary Reinholz)

(Photo: Mary Reinholz)

Casa Betsaida does not provide meds. “But we make sure our clients get them,” Cintron added. Not surprisingly, the Williamsburg residence has a waiting list. While many applicants are referred by hospitals and clinics, Cintron said staff sometimes receives a half dozen calls weekly from homeless shelters and social service agencies. If there are rooms available, he said, newcomers are accepted on a “first come, first service” basis –if, that is, they provide documentation of an HIV diagnosis.

He noted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security knows that undocumented immigrants live at Casa Betsaida, but claimed it “doesn’t consider them ripe for deportation.”

Daniel Leyva, director of the Latino Religious leadership program at the Latino Commission on AIDS, also regards Casa Betsaida as unique in its outreach to undocumented immigrants living with HIV/AIDS, noting many agencies are restricted on who they serve. “In general a lot of public services depend on people with some kind of legal status,” he said. “A social security card is required. And even though services are available, some [undocumented] people are afraid to seek them out. They don’t want to be identified or deported. So outreach for undocumented is really difficult. Even agencies who might want to offer help may have restrictions.”

He added, “I have a lot of respect for Catholic Charities. They have dedicated resources in New York City to help the very poor and disenfranchised.” He called Msgr. Karvelis, the residence’s founder, a “true Christian, a man who really lived by what he preached. Even though Karvelis passed away, his work is still very strong.”

Correction: The original version of this story was revised to correct the spelling of Puebla and to clarify that Maraya Perez does not rent her apartment directly from Catholic Charities.