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AIDS Foundation Addresses Housing Cuts
by Amy Wooten

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Mix together decreasing federal funds, skyrocketing rents and an increased demand for housing, and you have what AIDS Foundation of Chicago's David Munar calls the 'perfect storm.'

As a result of a nationwide housing crisis, AFC has been forced to make cuts across its housing programs. In addition to caps on rent subsidies, short-term housing assistance will be closed to new clients, and long-term programs are being phased out.

'They've been very difficult decisions to make,' associate director Munar told Windy City Times and Identity. 'It's a very difficult situation.'

AFC held a meeting March 20, to discuss the situation. It was apparent that the tough decisions had taken an emotional toll.

'The part you don't see is the lost sleep, the tears, the heartache,' said Legal Assistance Foundation's Michelle Wetzel.

Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS ( HOPWA ) is a federally funded, nationwide program. In 2005, HOPWA suffered a $13 million budget cut from the previous year. HOPWA's $286 million budget for 2006 is not nearly enough when combined with an increase in rent and demand.

HUD awards Chicago a set amount of funds for its HOPWA program. The Chicago Department of Public Health sets aside roughly one-third for rental assistance programs, which is given to AFC. AFC has administered rent subsidies since 1996. The organization learned early February that it was receiving less money than expected. With vouchers for newer long-term rent subsidy programs kicking in over the past two years, fewer federal dollars spelled disaster.

'This is the worst situation that we've ever had,' CDPH's Shirley Nash said.

Due to the crisis, AFC's main housing program, HAP, is closed to new clients until Dec. 31, 2006. Now, hundreds in need will have no access to services at all. In addition, the amount of subsidies available to current clients has been reduced, causing those on an already fixed income to feel pinched.

The decision was made in order for AFC to continue providing services.

'We made some decisions on principals,' said AFC housing director Art Valdivia-Bendixen. These principals include honoring lease commitments by clients in long-term programs and assuring that all current clients receive some assistance.

HAP provides short-term assistance for HIV-positive individuals with housing needs. By the end of 2005, the program had 734 participants—an all-time high. The average HAP client receives a payment of $420 five times a year. Within HAP, there will now be a cap of $250 per payment, and clients will have no access to Emergency Housing Assistance ( EHA ) for those tough months. EHA funds will now be reserved for those with no access to HAP.

Eighty HAP clients will not be impacted by cuts. Twenty-three clients will see a $50 cut per payment. Those most impacted will be those with current payments exceeding $250 who have not received a payment covering January through March. Over half of HAP clients will see annual losses of $1,150-1,500 per year. A large portion of HAP clients is on disability.

The two other housing programs impacted provide long-term rent subsidies, where the client pays 30 percent of his or her income towards rent, and federal dollars pay the rest. Clients receive a payment each month, and the average subsidy is $550. Individuals will continue to receive subsidies through the end of their lease. After their lease is up, they will be rolled into HAP. Both long-term programs, though fairly new, are being phased out. There are roughly 94 participants in long-term HOPWA programs.

After a lease expires, clients will receive payments of $250 every other month to ease the transition process. Long-term program clients will also have no access to EHA dollars, and even with transition funding, clients will see a $260 monthly loss.

According to Valdivia-Bendixen, there are some clients whose lease expires at the end of March.

'This is all in the interest of making sure we can help everybody,' Munar told Windy City times. The organization felt it was only fair that all programs had to give up something.

Munar said AFC is working very closely with its clients to try to figure out how they can make due with these changes, whether it means making their income stretch even farther, moving or sharing a place with others.

Wetzel said that the changes do not mean 'immediate homelessness' for its clients. 'AFC is trying its hardest so this doesn't mean homelessness,' she said. Through proactive work with the clients and landlords, AFC hopes to make the transition and painless as possible, she added.

AFC is looking at ways of advocating for more dollars, and is working hard to push for HIV set-aside dollars within Illinois' Rental Assistance Program. The organization is also looking at other federal housing resources.

'We want to rally our community to make sure housing programs prioritize HIV,' Munar added.

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