Atlanta’s HIV housing program ‘in crisis mode’

The head of a housing organization claims that an act of retaliation by the City of Atlanta has left some 250 city residents living with HIV on the verge of losing their homes.

The dispute is over the federally funded Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program (HOPWA), which the city has had trouble managing over the years. The city is responsible for disbursing the federal funds to Atlanta-based HOPWA agencies to subsidize the rent of the agencies’ clients.

But Jerome Brooks, executive director of Living Room, claimed it can’t pay its clients because the city has withheld some $500,000 in funding as retaliation for Brooks proposing an overhaul of the city’s grant managements department, according to the AJC. Living Room is the state’s largest facilitator of housing for people living with HIV, according to its website.

Brooks said he proposed in October that the city outsource its administration of HOPWA funds to Living Room, according to the AJC. This would speed up the city’s payments to Living Room and other agencies, Brooks claimed.

“The folks involved had a really strong negative reaction to it,” Brooks said of city administrators who administer HOPWA. “For me, that’s the only thing I can draw from this,” Brooks said.

Stefanie Sparks, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid Society, said her group is representing 40 of Living Room’s clients who face eviction, according to the AJC.

“Honestly, everybody is blaming each other. At the end of the day, we’re concerned with the estimated 250 clients that will be affected,” said Stefanie Sparks, an attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

A city spokesperson did not respond to Project Q Atlanta’s questions about Brooks’ claims and a timeline for when the city will pay Living Room its HOPWA funds. 

Agencies running out of housing money

 

Problems with the city's HOPWA program go back years, issues chronicled by Project Q Atlanta in August 2018. That's when housing advocates called the city's HOPWA grants management "a mess." City officials hoped at the time to address the issues to avoid the problems when the city's new fiscal year opened this summer. 

But on Thursday, numerous advocates for people living with HIV said the city’s HOPWA program is in “crisis.” The comments came during a special work session by an Atlanta City Council subcommittee to address the HOPWA situation. Thursday is also National HIV Testing Day.

Daniel Driffin (top photo), deputy executive director of Living Room, said that unstable housing is detrimental to the health of people living with HIV.

“That’s trauma,” he said. “Trauma affects the way the progression of the virus works. It all just makes the situation worse.” 

Driffin said a lack of communication from the city is causing an “extraordinary burden” with Living Room’s clients. 

“As a person living with HIV, having brothers and sisters call me daily and say, ‘What am I supposed to tell my landlord about this rent?’” he said. “Literally I have nothing to say until I hear something [from the city].” 

“I just really push the council to do something immediately to solve these issues with people living with HIV across the city,” he added.

Rasheeda Jordan, HOPWA Housing Director for Positive Impact Health Centers (PIHC), said the city owes the agency “north of $300,000” in HOPWA funds.

PIHC and other agencies are taking on Living Room’s clients until the organization gets funding, which Jordan said was not sustainable. PIHC receives about 90 referrals a month for HIV-positive people needing housing, she said. They received 264 referrals in March.

“We don’t have the funding to meet that need,” she said.

State Rep. Sam Park, a legal analyst for PIHC, said the issue was “very concerning,” especially if there are funds available that would stem the evictions.

“A lot of my concern is this immediate issue where people who are HIV-positive whose rent has not been paid in two to three months,” he said.

Park, a Democrat from Gwinnett, suggested that the state get involved with the HOPWA process.

Eric Paulk, deputy executive director of Georgia Equality, said he’s lost confidence in the city’s ability to manage the HOPWA program.

“We are in crisis mode and there has to be a certain degree of urgency, which I don’t necessarily feel the Office of Grants Management offered today,” he said.

Karen Carter (second photo), the city’s Director of Grant Management, was pressed by Atlanta City Councilmembers Natalyn Archibong, Antonio Brown and Matt Westmoreland about her next steps for the HOPWA funding problems.

“We’re continuing to work through any reimbursements,” Carter said. “We also have, with the backing of the administration, we’re submitting a letter to fund advances to these agencies so there isn’t that working capital gap.”

Archibong, Brown and Westmoreland vowed to continue working on the issue .

Sparks said that time is of the essence.

“This is a dire situation,” he said. “This is a housing crisis. July rent is due next week and there’s another flood of evictions that are going to come.”