Homelessness is one of the most stressful experiences a family can go through. Having a roof over your head and a safe place to eat, sleep, and bathe is a basic necessity. As a mother living with HIV, maintaining stable housing is the foundation of my health. It also allows me to take care of my 13-year-old daughter. But this year, the City of Atlanta has been threatening the health and stability of hundreds of Atlantans living with HIV like me and harming efforts to end the epidemic in our city through their failure to administer their federal Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) grant.
I found out not long ago that my rent, normally subsidized through HOPWA, had not been paid for three months. Despite the assurances of the mayor's office last week that everyone in this situation was being taken care of, my landlord is still waiting for his check. And for the second time in as many months, I've had to make urgent appeals to friends, fellow advocates, my church, and even my own landlord to chip in to keep our lights on. My husband's heart monitor requires electricity -- without it, he could die. This makes us one of the hundreds of families facing power shut-offs because of the city's failure to properly administer the HOPWA grant.
HOPWA, a federal program that provides housing assistance for people living with HIV, has been my family's lifeline for the past two years. My husband had a heart attack two years ago and has not been able to work since then, so our family of three has been getting by on my very limited single income.
Before receiving assistance from HOPWA, my family was paying market rent on our apartment. With our health conditions and expenses, we simply were not able to keep up with the rent. We ended up evicted from our home and had to move in with my sister temporarily. Getting housing assistance through Living Room allowed my family some breathing room to focus on our health and on our daughter's needs. Now everything has been thrown into chaos again.
Atlanta -- an epicenter of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. -- has the federal funding it needs to make the rent payments to keep people like my family stably housed. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, over $41 million of Atlanta's HOPWA money has not been spent. Yet the city has not been passing that funding along to Living Room, the organization that managed my housing until this month, nor has the city paid my landlord directly. As a result, the only thing that has kept my family from being put out on the street is the generosity of my landlord.
Just today [Monday, August 12], I learned that AID Atlanta, a local HIV service organization, had sent a check for part of my back rent to my landlord, but due to a clerical error, it went to the wrong address. I also just got a call that I am being moved from Living Room to another service organization, Positive Impact Health Centers, for my housing assistance.
While it was a huge relief to know that my housing situation is on its way to being stabilized, I do not think I am alone in being skeptical of the city's claims that we have nothing left to worry about. Before public outcry and media attention addressed the evictions and the unspent HOPWA funds, where was the city? When HIV advocates were demanding a seat at the table and for improvements in a system well known for failing to meet the needs of the people it was meant to serve, where was the city? Once the evictions stop and the media loses interest, what is the long-term plan to make sure that every person living with HIV in Atlanta has -- and keeps -- stable housing?
Even assuming the roughly 250 people living with HIV and their families caught in the middle of the dispute between Living Room and the City of Atlanta have all been taken care of, there are still more people living with HIV in temporary housing -- often hotels -- for months at a time, because the housing assistance agencies have told them there is no money for stable housing. Hundreds of Atlanta's most vulnerable residents and our families are living in constant fear of ending up on the streets.
This isn't just bad for individuals, it's bad for Atlanta, which has the third-highest rate of new HIV diagnoses of any city in the U.S. When a person living with HIV maintains an undetectable viral load by adhering to medical treatment, they cannot transmit HIV. But without stable housing, keeping up with doctor visits and medications is next to impossible. Housing is health care.
After being diagnosed with HIV in 2003, I learned how to advocate for myself as a matter of survival. I'm now an advocate for other people living with HIV as well. As a member of Positive Women's Network -- USA, a national advocacy organization of women living with HIV, I am committed to fighting to make sure that all people living with HIV have the stable housing we need.
It's high time for the city to make the same commitment.