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  Windy City Times

HIV/AIDS Community Faces Housing Crisis
by Amy Wooten
2007-09-19

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If local HIV/AIDS organizations don't receive $1.5 million in ongoing city funding for AIDS housing and rental assistance, 211 low-income, disabled Chicagoans living with HIV/AIDS may face the threat of homelessness and serious risks to their health beginning January 2008.

The local HIV/AIDS housing crisis is not a new problem, and is progressively worsening. Local organizations and Alderman Tom Tunney ( 44th Ward ) are calling for city officials to allocate ongoing funds to help alleviate the high rates of housing instability and homelessness among HIV-positive Chicagoans next year.

'These 211 clients will be at serious risk of homelessness,' AIDS Foundation of Chicago's ( AFC ) John Peller said. 'We know that housing is healthcare. When people are housed, they are able to improve their health.'

Federal funding dwindles

Federal funding for AIDS housing, called Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS ( HOPWA ) , has been decreasing. The funds allocated to the Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) go to community residences such as Bonaventure House; housing locator and advocacy programs; and rental assistance. The Housing Assistance Program ( HAP ) provides short-term rental assistance and provided long-term assistance until that program was phased out due to decreasing funds.

For fiscal year 2007, Chicago was awarded $5.5 million, and roughly $2.1 million went to HAP programs. This year, 661 households will receive rental assistance; AFC projects 450 will be assisted in 2008. At one point, over 1,000 households received HAP assistance after a one-time bonus for community housing; however, HOPWA funding has been flat, which means fewer people can get the help they need.

HAP funds are projected to decrease 27 percent for 2008, cutting 211 people. According to AFC, $1.5 million from the city would prevent those individuals from losing their assistance; provide rental assistance for more; expand services or beds for community residences; and increase funding for housing locator and advocacy programs.

Broken housing system

When funding decreases, the AIDS housing continuum becomes 'broken,' according to AFC. Those who go from homelessness and hospitalization are put on long waiting lists to get into community residences. Those in such housing can't graduate to owning their own apartment with rental assistance because none is available, and those on assistance can't graduate to living completely on their own.

'The system is completely backed up at this point,' Peller said.

Chicago House's executive director, Stan Sloan, knows that firsthand. Chicago House is a community residence that provides beds and essential services. 'There are waiting lists because people can't graduate to receiving rental assistance,' he told Windy City Times. 'We always have waiting lists.'

Sloan fears what would happen if city dollars aren't provided. 'We've got literally hundreds of people that will become homeless or worse. Give them a toolbox, so by the time they are ready, they can pay their own way and live on their own,' Sloan said. 'It's critical we have a flow into that.'

Housing equals health

The 211 individuals at risk of being cut are low-income, disabled and living with HIV/AIDS. According to AIDS activists, they are not only face housing instability, but also the possible threat of homelessness. In addition, without this basic necessity, positive individuals may not have access to a refrigerator for their medications, a bathroom, clean water, food and more—all of which contribute to their overall health.

'Without housing, we can't have any of the other things,' AFC's Jim Pickett said at a recent town hall meeting hosted by AFC Sept. 11 in order to inform the community about the issue and provide the facts and tools needed to help persuade the city to provide additional dollars. The well-attended event was a way for advocates, clients and agencies to voice their concerns, share ideas and learn.

'Housing is the foundation of health,' AFC housing program director and housing expert Arturo Valvivia-Bendixon said at the meeting. 'It's not just a human issue; it's a public health issue. We believe every human being is sacred and the dignity of every human being is sacred.'

Part of much bigger problem

The immediate crisis is part of a much larger problem of homelessness in Chicago, and the fact is that supply doesn't equal the demand. According to AFC, of the estimated 10,000-15,000 Chicagoans living with HIV/AIDS that need housing assistance, only 1,460 units are available.

According to the National AIDS Housing Coalition, up to two-thirds of people living with HIV/AIDS have a lifetime experience with homelessness or inadequate housing.

The decline in 'affordable' rent in Chicago isn't helping the problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has tracked a steady increase in rent in Chicago, and projects prices for one-bedroom apartments and studios to continue to rise for 2008.

The problem worsens when dwindling federal dollars and Chicago's affordable housing crisis are thrown in the mix. 'The demand is always increasing,' CDPH's HOPWA program manager Shirley Nash told Windy City Times. 'It's challenging. We have to just be creative and utilize that money as effectively as we can.'

Local organizations struggle

Organizations, such as Better Existence with HIV ( BEHIV ) struggle to find resources for clients. Housing advocate Michele Olson told Windy City Times that there are fewer landlords to make referrals to as it is, not much in terms of affordable housing out there and expects much worse if funding doesn't become available.

'We have clients on the waiting list anywhere from five or six months, and up to 10 years,' said BEHIV housing manager Cassandra Smith. 'It's depressing for the clients.'

Eric Nelson, BEHIV's executive director, stressed how crucial housing is. 'You can't get to the doctor if you don't have a place to stay,' he said. His housing staff hears stories of clients not taking their medications because they are spending all of their energy finding a place to stay. Unstable housing can also lead to drug dependency, hanging out with the wrong crowds and more.

Olson said, 'They will always choose food, shelter, what have you, over meds.'

Until more funding becomes available, Smith said the agency has to 'pull rabbits out of other hats,' such as working to build rapport between landlords and clients to get application fees and credit checks waived, etc. 'It's challenging, but it is definitely rewarding when they are housed,' she said. 'We've had clients excel so much as a result.'

At the town hall, Jennifer Williams of Interfaith House said that each year, the organization has to turn away roughly 300 individuals, and their list is months long. 'When we do get to them, we don't know where they go,' she said.

Clients and former clients speak up

BEHIV client Timothy Jones has had his life dramatically impacted due to housing. After losing his home and career, he found himself living on the streets, 'just giving up.' Through word of mouth, he was able to get the assistance he needed to get a roof over his head. And with 'hard work,' Jones was able to become drug-free, obtain a job, build credit and take care of his health. 'It's the best thing that has ever happened to me,' Jones told Windy City Times. 'Things are getting better and better. I'll be 52 [ soon ] , and I feel younger then that.'

When asked where Jones would be without that assistance, he simply stated, 'In the ground. There's no other way to put it.'

Evany Turk, who now runs a program at Chicago House, was diagnosed in 2001. A couple of years later, she was evicted and walking the streets pregnant. For her, stable housing helped her deal with the 'baggage' that came with HIV. Now, she helps others that are in the position she was once in to find employment. Turk is not only giving back, but has a home, her health and is preparing to get married. 'All of that is because I was able to be stably housed,' she told Windy City Times.

Many clients who attended the town hall also provided personal stories about how housing helped them manage their bills, overcome addiction, give back to the community, take medication and stay alive.

Taking action

'Without housing, I probably wouldn't be standing here,' said National AIDS Housing Coalition board member Debra Fleming at the Sept. 11 town hall. She encouraged attendees to become involved, and said you don't have to have HIV or be in need of housing to become an advocate.

Also at the meeting was young hip-hop J. Xavier, who appeared at the AIDS Run & Walk. 'You don't have to be a victim to be an advocate, but just have a voice,' he stressed.

In October, the mayor's budget will be introduced, and budget hearings and public testimony will take place. The final budget will be passed in November, and the 2008 fiscal year begins Jan. 1. Until then, organizations and activists say action is needed to convince the city that ongoing funds are crucial.

Strategies discussed included writing to your representatives ( city, state and national ) ; becoming very informed and getting personal stories out in the open for people to hear. Activists also advised people to spread the word and to become a part of the process by registering to vote. More information can be found at www.aidschicago.org .


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