As evictions start, Atlanta considers stop-gap fix for HIV housing crisis

Evictions for people living with HIV continue and efforts to provide emergency aid for agencies affected by Atlanta’s HIV housing crisis have stalled.

But the head of the non-profit agency the city asked to clean up the long-troubled Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) program said it is the right organization for the job.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (photo) on July 18 proposed moving HOPWA oversight from the Office of Grants Management and Office of Human Services to Partners for Home, a non-profit that manages the city’s homeless services grant from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. The organization was created in 2014 and has offices in Atlanta City Hall.

Partners for Home will provide “a very targeted prioritization” of resources for low-income Atlanta residents living with HIV, according to executive director Cathryn Marchman.

“The alignment of those funds within continuum of care makes sense because we can then align additional HUD resources against those resources to make sure that we are doing this all in one place and prioritizing the most vulnerable folks in our system for what is becoming a much more finite resource,” she said.

But the HOPWA restructuring needs approval from HUD, the Atlanta City Council and Partners for Home’s board of directors. If approved, Partners for Home would begin managing the HOPWA grants in fiscal year 2020 and those will be issued this fall, according to Marchman.

“We would be prepping early fall into early winter of this calendar year to prepare, having community conversations, getting input from providers and stakeholders and advocates around making those decisions,” she said.

Partners for Home would not be responsible for managing the $40.1 million in unspent HOPWA funds the city has left unspent since 2014. A city spokesperson did not respond to Project Q when asked which department would manage those open contracts. HUD issues annual HOPWA grants to the city, which is in charge of disbursing the funds to HOPWA agencies, which use the money to subsidize the rent of low-income people living with HIV.

The amount of the city’s unspent HOPWA funds from 2014 to 2019 has not been reconciled with HUD, according to a city official. The city contends the amount is actually $31.6 million.

Compounding the HOPWA issues faced by the city are coming changes to how HUD determines grant amounts. That could lead to a 40 percent cut in HOPWA funding by fiscal year 2022, according to activists. 

“Modernization is already underway,” Marchman said. “The fiscal year 2020 appropriation will realize more reductions in the city’s HOPWA award, so we need to begin that planning right away.”

While the Bottoms administration works on getting the restructuring plan approved, Partners for Home is coordinating a Housing Relocation Team to find housing for HOPWA clients at risk of eviction.

City considers emergency aid

 

A group of about 100 HIV activists, doctors and researchers called on Atlanta City Council to return early from a two-week recess to approve $1.5 million in emergency aid to eight entities affected by the HOPWA crisis.

Councilmember Antonio Brown was coordinating with other members and the city's chief financial officer, Roosevelt Council, to schedule the meeting and distribute the funds, according to an email exchange reviewed by Project Q. Those efforts stalled but the city said it can take action without approval from the City Council.

“The CFO does not agree that a special meeting for the emergency funds is warranted,” Press Secretary Michael Smith told Project Q. “We are moving forward.”

Brown told Project Q he is “working through this issue” with the Bottoms administration.

Positive Impact Health Centers is one of the eight entities seeking the emergency funding. The city owes the agency $1.075 million, according to CEO Larry Lehman.

“It’s all extremely confusing,” Lehman told Project Q. “After our meeting with [Office of Grants Management director Karen] Carter on June 24, we were all under the impression this would happen very quickly. A month later, no clear answer.”

Atlanta City Council is back from recess on Aug. 5. 

'I don't need the stress'

 

The city terminated the contract of HOPWA agency Living Room on July 3 and said the organization was not in HUD compliance. Living Room sued the city on July 15 over allegations that city officials retaliated against the agency after spurned romantic advances and claims of “flagrant breaches” by the city in its HOPWA program.

The dispute affected 250 Living Room clients, with over 70 facing evictions. One of them was Jeremy Sims, who also serves on the city’s HOPWA Advisory Council. The city canceled that council’s July 16 meeting just minutes before it was to begin, the fourth of five meetings the city has called off since the council’s formation.

Sims, 32, didn’t hear about Living Room being months behind in paying their portion of the rent until late June.  

“By being part of HOPWA, I realized the money from the federal government hasn’t been released in time to pay the landlord,” he told Project Q. “Our landlord and property manager had tried to hold back and were paying out of their pocket in hopes that the city would pay the money to Living Room to pay them.”

He started a new job June 24, but his work suffered while he tried clearing up his housing situation. 

“The very first couple of weeks of my job I was being pulled in two different directions with all of this stuff,” he said. “They terminated me July 12, so there was no income at that point. The check I got I had to put it into someplace to stay.”

He’s staying at an extended stay motel for now and working with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Association to get the eviction thrown out.

Living Room gave no warning about the late payments, according to Sims.

“I haven’t heard anything from Living Room, not a word, not any type of literature. Not even from my case manager. That is unprofessional,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to accept any type of apology. At least you could have told us that. At least we could have been aware that it was this many months behind.”

“If these nonprofit organizations aren’t communicating with their clients, it’s pointless,” he added.

Sims said the situation is taking a toll on his health. He had an anxiety attack on Saturday.

“I do have my meds, but I don’t need the stress, I just don’t need it,” he said.

UPDATE | Michael Smith, the city’s press secretary, clarified after publication of this story that the city did not nix emergency funding for people facing eviction. The city’s CFO said the city can take action on issuing the emergency funds without action by the City Council. An earlier version of the story, based on an earlier statement from Smith, said the city killed the efforts for emergency funding.

Smith said that is not correct.

“As I said the first time, a special session is not warranted, and we are moving forward with emergency funding. The insinuation that the City would hold up emergency funding for HOPWA is wildly misleading,” Smith said.

Smith did not provide a timeline for when the city will issue the emergency funds.

The headline and portions of this story were changed to reflect the city’s clarification.