The life that Lisa Britt has been creating in Marietta, Georgia, for the past three years felt like it was starting to crumble when she received a couple of text messages in June. Both were from her case manager at the Living Room, an Atlanta nonprofit that assists people living with HIV and pays for a portion of Britt's rent with funds it receives from the city of Atlanta.
The first text message was simply a picture of the business card for Stefanie Sparks, managing attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
"Call Stephanie with legal aid," the second text read, "and let her know that I referred you to her because you [sic] rent haven't gotten paid through Living Room in 2 months … she will help you."
Britt immediately called the private landlord of the condo she and her family live in, who confirmed he had not received the Living Room's portion of her rent in several months. The landlord said leaders of the nonprofit assured him the money would be forthcoming, but as Briggs talked with other Living Room clients, she began to doubt the organization's promises.
"It's very scary," Britt said. "You just don't know what the future holds, and all I can do is pray. I don't want to move, I don't want to change my daughter's schooling or anything like that -- because she's in a good school. The thing that's going on between the city of Atlanta and the Living Room is mind-boggling. They have issues with each other, but that don't have anything to do with me and the other residents. That don't have anything to do with our housing, and it's just a shame that they're going [tit-for-tat] with each other and then we are affected by it."
There is a pile of money -- tens of millions of dollars high -- that is supposed to provide housing assistance to Britt and about 200 other metro Atlantans who are living with HIV and now facing potential eviction.
"They did nothing wrong," Sparks said. "These clients paid their portion of the rent -- they are doing everything right. They've done everything they can in their power, and they're facing this completely horrendous situation, and in their mind they're thinking, 'I might be homeless.'"
The reason their rents went unpaid is a toxic interplay of decades of bureaucratic incompetence or indifference, and a charity accused of dozens of instances of non-compliance with federal guidelines, from financial and hiring impropriety to housing clients who were recently discharged from the hospital in hazardous conditions. A lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court July 10 by the Living Room against the city of Atlanta claims the eviction fiasco is the result of Living Room Executive Director Jerome Brooks declining romantic advances from former director of Atlanta's Office of Human Services Preston Brant.
"The crisis at hand is just a symptom of the overall ongoing mismanagement of the HOPWA program," Brooks said at a July 9 meeting of the Atlanta City Council's human services committee.
The salacious lawsuit, the city firing Brant in May due to separate accusations of inappropriate behavior (possibly with a Living Room client), and even the current eviction crisis itself risk overshadowing an underlying issue here: The ecosystem of housing services for people living with HIV in metro Atlanta has been polluted for almost as long as it has existed.
'Decades' of Inefficiency
With public health services in Georgia administered by county governments, housing funding is one of the few instruments Atlanta's city government wields against an illness that impacts the city as severely as any metropolitan area in the country. Since the creation of the federal Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program in 1990, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded millions of dollars annually to the city of Atlanta to reimburse community-based organizations and county health departments that provide housing assistance to people living with HIV.
In this limited combat with the epidemic, the city of Atlanta has proven itself an incapable warrior. Coordinated by both the city's human services department and the Office of Grants Management, Atlanta's HOPWA operations are described by multiple people familiar with the system as being so convoluted that it's questionable whether anyone in city government knows the complete course of funding: how many signatures are required to move the money, how long it takes to get from one approval mechanism to the next, and why it takes up to eight months for the reimbursement payments to get to the organizations serving clients. Instead of knowledge, Atlanta's HOPWA officials, the mayor, and city council seem to inherit and pass down institutional ignorance.
"The current mayor didn't create the crisis," said Kirk Rich, a commercial realtor who used to serve as board chair for Jerusalem House, one of the city's largest HOPWA-funded nonprofits, and who currently co-chairs Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms' LGBTQ Advisory Board. "[Atlanta's management of HOPWA funding] is not being done in an efficient way, and it's been going on for decades."
During his time as board chair of Jerusalem House, the organization would regularly access a line of credit to cover operating costs while it awaited funds from the city, Rich said.
"Those delays add up over time, and it became a big burden on the organization," he said. "The stress of just operating an agency that's trying to do the right thing for the city and the populations it serves, and not knowing when you're going to get your frickin' reimbursement. That can get really scary -- and to have to make multiple phone calls, especially under the previous administration, to try to figure out who's holding what."
According to a review of Atlanta city council minutes since 2016, HOPWA contracts with nonprofits are considered by the council with little discernible consistency: in May in 2016, July, and October in 2017; and February, June, and August in 2018. The council's two HOPWA allotments in 2019 were in January and a May contract for $19,430 to Darlene Mathews to consult on how Atlanta was structuring its HOPWA efforts.
Complaints about the delayed reimbursements peaked in the summer of 2018, which coincided with Karen Carter replacing Eugene Kirschbaum as director of the city's Office of Grants Management. One month into her job, Carter met with HIV housing activists to address the systemic delays, as well as discrepancies between the grants awarded to organizations and the amount they received. The city pledged six months of immediate funding to HOPWA agencies, according to Project Q, an Atlanta news outlet that has covered the city's HOPWA troubles for many months.
However, that bandage did not stop the bleeding.
"We are [currently] delayed in receiving our reimbursements," said Sparks of Atlanta Legal Aid, which receives HOPWA funding from the city. "It is not near the extent that the other providers are because we don't provide housing assistance, but we are also receiving delays in our funding. I do think it's probably across the board."
In addition to the $19.3 million of HOPWA funds Atlanta was awarded in 2019, documents from the council's human services committee meeting showed more than $40.1 million in HOPWA awards to the city from 2014 to 2018 that have yet to reach the nonprofits it was to reimburse.
The current eviction crisis is centered solely around the Living Room and is unrelated to Atlanta's inability to allocate reimbursements, activists and city officials said. To avoid evictions, the city is attempting to route all of the Living Room's former clients into other agencies that receive HOPWA funding, and the human services committee approved $1.5 million in emergency funding to support those groups, which the full council is expected to pass August 5.
"We are asking for this emergency funding because we have had a failure in the performance of one of our project sponsors," Carter told the committee, referring to the Living Room. "This emergency funding is just a stop-gap so that we can address the immediate capacity until we can do an amendment to the existing project sponsors' other budgets for long-term funding and assistance."
Allegations Fly in Both Directions
The city's feud with the Living Room and the resulting eviction crisis reveal that, in addition to the clogged funding stream, those leading Atlanta's HOPWA program have struggled with both oversight and foresight.
Earlier this year, Atlanta officials conducted an audit of the Living Room and alleged more than a dozen violations of HOPWA guidelines, including not verifying that those receiving support were HIV positive, housing clients in unsuitable conditions, and bouncing checks that were issued for clients' rent.
"As is our right, the City of Atlanta may not execute a contract with the Living Room until all issues are resolved to the satisfaction of the city," Carter wrote to the Living Room's Brooks in a March 28 letter that gave the agency 30 days to correct the alleged deficiencies. In its lawsuit against Carter and the city, the Living Room claims the timing, scope, and release of the report to an investigative TV news team were retribution for Brooks speaking out about the city's dysfunction and his refusal of Brant's overtures.
"[City officials propagated] a false narrative that the Living Room has somehow, within the span of a few months, failed to perform our duties to provide housing and supportive services to our clients to the point that the city has to stave off a crisis," Brooks said at the July 9 committee meeting. "This is morally and demonstrably false, and also disrespectful to an agency that has carried out this work for decades without a single slap on the wrist from the city of Atlanta."
In June, the city canceled its contract with the Living Room, without anyone seeming to consider what would happen when the rent of hundreds of clients of one of the largest HOPWA providers in Atlanta went unpaid. Funding to support other HOPWA agencies that enrolled former Living Room clients wasn't requested from city council until July 9, and councilmembers won't vote on the emergency allocations until August 5. The lack of planning has led to weeks of panic for HOPWA residents, city officials, and other HOPWA-funded agencies.
"[The Living Room is] a major provider for us for housing, and so without them, as it has now been shown, there creates a large void for us for a lot of people who can be displaced," Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Roosevelt Council told the city council committee. "I think there was a little bit of culpability probably on both sides, in terms of maybe how we got to where we are now."
Atlanta Legal Aid was first contacted by a Living Room client in April and reported unpaid rent and the possibility of eviction to city officials, Sparks said.
"In May, we started seeing the writing on the wall and reached out again," she said. "It started as a trickle and then the dam broke. Unfortunately, we didn't get a response until the first evictions were filed, and that's when we started receiving assistance from the city."
The city's audit of Living Room contained "stuff that is just beyond understanding for how it existed for so long and how it was not caught," said Rich, co-chair of the mayor's LGBTQ Advisory Board. "And that comes from all sides not understanding what was going on at the level that they should have."
The only HOPWA-related inspections the city conducts are administrative, such as those of agencies' reimbursement requests and performance, Carter said. Living standards for units that house HOPWA recipients are supposed to be monitored by HUD, and Atlanta officials indicated it was the federal agency that essentially evicted the Living Room.
"HUD has also demonstrated a lot of concern about the Living Room," Council, the city's chief financial officer, said. "We're pretty certain that any funds that have been expensed to the Living Room have a very high probability of not being reimbursed."
Atlanta City Councilmember Antonio Brown suggested the city needed to begin its own monitoring of HOPWA-funded residences, many of which are owned by private landlords.
"There's not been monitoring that has happened to the extent that it should have happened to avoid us from being in this predicament in the first place," said Brown, who abstained from the vote on emergency funding over fears that other Atlanta HOPWA providers might be non-compliant. "We as a city have not done our due diligence to ensure that these agencies are in compliance so that we don't run into issues with HUD."
'HOPWA's Not Enough'
Britt was nervous and depressed as she prepared to pay her portion of July's rent.
"My landlord came over and I gave him the money, and I asked him if he was going to evict us," she said. "And he told us, 'No, I'm not that kind of person.'"
City officials, housing advocates, and leaders of other HOPWA providers have been meeting throughout the month to make sure all of Living Room's clients are absorbed into other programs and no one is evicted. Yet, no matter how welcoming the other nonprofits are, how empathetic a condo owner is, or how many attorneys Atlanta Legal Aid devotes to the cause, activists said the efforts mean little if money does not get from city coffers into landlords' hands.
Arguably, the most effective strategy the city of Atlanta has employed during the crisis is to get out of the way, following the advice of more than 90 local activists who wrote a July 15 letter to Mayor Bottoms encouraging the city to turn over management of HOPWA funds to Partners for HOME, a collaborative policy-making body that guides assistance for Atlanta's underhoused. Partners for HOME has been coordinating the city's efforts to enroll former Living Room clients into new programs, and will be responsible for handling Atlanta's HOPWA funds going forward.
"I think Partners for HOME is doing a great job with this crisis right now, and it gives me confidence that they're going to handle the HOPWA grants with just as much attention and concern," Sparks said.
While it's hard to celebrate as folks still face the possibility of eviction, Rich believes the crisis has finally brought systemic shortcomings to the attention of those who might be able to improve operations.
"I think it is a great moment for the city, because the HOPWA issue is so dysfunctional that it's got everybody's attention who has an understanding for how to fix it trying to fix it now," he said. "Whereas before, you had a lot people that were in positions they probably didn't need to be in trying to fix something they had no idea what the hell they were trying to fix. The meetings I sit on today, you have people who understand the issue and understand the problem in a way that it's never been understood before."
However, the past few weeks have also revealed how one-dimensional Atlanta's approach to housing people living with HIV has been. One of the allegations against the Living Room was that it enrolled clients who were ineligible to receive HOPWA funds, and Atlanta has few non-HOPWA resources available to those folks.
"They will not be left out of solutions," Rich promised. "Everyone that was in the Living Room mix that has been negatively impacted by things that they had no say in, they will not fall out of the system without someone trying to help them."
Sustaining that effort, or expanding it to the thousands of additional underhoused people living with HIV in metro Atlanta who are ineligible for federal assistance, will require the city to radically alter its reliance on HOPWA as the sole source of funding for housing for people living with HIV, especially since the city's federal HOPWA award is expected to be cut in half once a HOPWA modernization formula that was enacted in 2016 takes effect in the coming years.
"All of this speaks to a need for cities like Atlanta to diversify their funding portfolio to house people living with HIV if they believe and recognize that homelessness is both a driver of our epidemic, and health care for people living with HIV," said Emily Halden Brown, a housing advocate who is part of the mayor's LGBTQ Advisory Board and has been examining the issue for years.
"HOPWA's not enough," Brown said. "We need to build a fund that is bigger than HOPWA for people living with HIV who need housing, and it needs to be managed by Partners for HOME -- because HOPWA doesn't work for everyone, and HOPWA's not the answer, and HOPWA can go away at any time. We all take it for granted, but it could disappear at any time. [Atlanta's] got a 60% cut coming down the pipeline -- it could be zero someday, and we all need to prepare for that."