Charles King, President and CEO of Housing Works, lives in a tiny, book-filled guest room within the East 9th Street residence, the Keith D. Cylar House, which is named after his partner and co-founder of Housing Works. He could have one of the pleasant studio apartments that house the other residents, all of whom have suffered homelessness and illness, but he says this will do for him. In fact he thinks of it as rather ‘elegant’. It is a typical gesture of an extraordinary, humble, thoughtful man who started life on a cotton farm in Texas, born into a right-wing fundamentalist family that later disowned him. He went on to acquire two degrees from Yale, one from the divinity school and one from the law school, as well as High Honors in Field Manoeuvres from tractor-trailer school, which he put to use when he drove a bus for a year.
He has been arrested for civil disobedience so many times that he has lost count, especially during the Giuliani years when he waged a running battle with the mayor (whom he said, in a rare burst of real anger, ‘was just flat out hateful’) when he tried to cut city contracts with the charity. But if he gets angry, it is anger and frustration in the face of indifference to suffering. He has none of the ego of an evangelist. He is a truly good man living a good life, not the good life, and that’s not always an easy thing to find.
In an incredibly materialistic world, how do you feel about possessions?
I don’t make judgments about other people and obviously Housing Works is successful in part because we live in a material world and people buy things. I don’t personally feel the need to have a lot of possessions or a lot of money … I’m very comfortable here. I have everything I need and I have less to worry about cleaning [laughs] … sometimes it’s a little messier than this. I warn you I didn’t dust the upper shelves!
You have a religious background, don’t you?
I am an ordained Baptist minister … that stack of CDs is my gospel collection. I do a Bible study here every Sunday. We’re now in the middle of Job. We started ten years ago with Genesis and we’ve never skipped a chapter.
If you were to describe the Bible to someone who didn’t know what it was, how would you describe it?
Um … the same way I describe it to my group. The Bible is a collection of writings written over a period of several thousand years of a community of people grappling over time to understand their relationship with the Divine. If we understand in that way, it can speak to us in a very lively way. If we understand it as something that is this fixed and rigid, static book, it very quickly becomes something else.
You grew up in a fundamentalist family. What was your relationship to the Bible at that time?
Not one jot or tittle, is I think the phrase that was used. The Bible was the inherent word of God, and every single word of it divinely inspired.
I read they disowned you … that you had nine brothers and sisters.
Yeah, I went for 20 years without a relationship with them … my entire family.
Have you since met them?
Yeah. Right before my father died, there was a reconciliation. My father died of brain cancer and he was no longer really coherent when I went down there. [to Texas]
But what about forgiveness? Why was there none? I thought Christianity was all about that.
Well this is one of the things that I think religion struggles with.
Were you disowned because you were gay? What was the real point of departure?
Well, I think my being gay was the most difficult thing for them to deal with. But also I had left the faith as it were.
But they must have known what you were doing with your life. Was that not enough?
Well this applies to any rigid religious culture. It is interesting listening to our attacks on Islamic culture and whether or not there is any value in that culture—well it depends how rigidly the culture is applied. I define spirituality as that which is greater than ourselves, that which pulls us out of ourselves. So everybody is a spiritual being whether you believe in God or a non-deistic form. Distilled down to its basic chaos theory, we’re just atoms and molecules thrown out into space so we have to apply some meaning to our lives. That meaning has to come from something outside of ourselves. For someone who has spent a large part of their lives sleeping in cardboard boxes, you know, it takes on a different dimension how people explore meaning outside of themselves.
So I’ve read these words that have been used to describe you: ‘messianic’, ‘the Mother Theresa of New York’, and ‘fire and brimstone down to his bones’ … you don’t strike me as any of those things right now. Do you have an alter ego?!
[Laughs very heartily] … I’m not Mother Theresa. I live far more elegantly than I think she ever lived. I have my bar [gestures to glasses and bottles on a shelf] … I make no claims to being a saint.
What do you like to drink?
Mainly gin. When I’m out—gin martinis, when I’m home—gin with cranberry juice.
Er, as far as being messianic, my passion is bringing an end to the AIDS pandemic. AIDS is much more than just a disease—it’s at the nexus of social and economic injustice. AIDS is a disease that particularly impacts the most marginalized of people, whether that marginalization is caused by the ‘isms’ sexism, homophobia, racism … but also poverty [and] the disempowerment of women is what fuels the epidemic around the globe. So if you want to address the AIDS epidemic in a serious way it calls for more than public health measures … it’s much larger. So if that’s messianic, I’m guilty. I can be pretty passionate at condemning at what I see as not just lethargy but particularly just deliberate neglect.
I just want to talk a little bit about AIDS and the way it’s fallen off the agenda in a certain way. It’s become something that rich, white people can manage and so doesn’t have quite the same prominence any longer …
Now you’re going to get me in my fire and brimstone [mode]… as a matter of fact I gave a speech on World Aids Day … where I challenged the LBGT community specifically about this because, even in the gay community, AIDS has dramatically slipped down the agenda as an important issue. Basically we’ve got a situation where folk who have the power don’t have to pay attention because it’s not having a direct impact on them.
You were saying in that speech that Washington D.C. has become the worst urban center for AIDS—one African-American man out of seven is infected. That’s like a Third World statistic.
Yes, it’s tremendously shocking that we can ignore that statistic.
I want to know the difference between you and me. I feel these things are wrong too but I don’t do much about it and you do. What do you have that I don’t have?
[Giggles] … Well, I feel everybody should feel passionate about it … [sighs and pauses to think] I think most of us are very intellectual about the ills of the world and we’ve deliberately intellectualized them rather than making it real and personal. I’ve never had the wherewithal to do that. I can tell you why I do it but … the law in the Old Testament, long before Jesus and whether or not the law applied after Jesus, Amos sweeps all of this away and says: ‘ You do justice. You love kindness. And you walk humbly with God.’ And that is what is called of us as human beings.
What aren’t you a monk?!
[Really laughs] Well I’m not Catholic for one thing! I like sex too much [still reallylaughing] … I don’t think we were called to live austere and miserable lives. We were called to do justice, love kindness and be humble.
Which is not necessarily antithetical to celebrating life, I guess…
You’re the leader of a big organization, this takes a degree of ego … you’re the head honcho basically.
I’m the head honcho but I have a number of people around me who keep me humble! And remember that is the third leg of what I think! [laughs] … I’m not unwilling to assert myself.
You can make unpopular decisions?
I make unpopular decisions all the time. [laughs]
You know this Victorian phrase ‘the poor are always with us’ which was meant to dismiss the poor, to imply that no matter what one does for them, they are always
Er, it was actually more than Victorian, that was a statement by … Jesus!
But Jesus didn’t mean it in that way, that helping them is pointless because there’s always an ocean of them …
And the counter to that is the reason they will always be with us is because of our own inhumanity.