J'Mia Edwards, "Public Face of AIDS in the District" Makes a Fresh Start, Film Debut

Edwards, at a tearful press conference last May, before she received housing and a job.
Edwards, at a tearful press conference last May, before she received housing and a job.

Last year J'Mia Edwards was jobless and desperately trying to get off a waiting list in Washington, D.C. to get permanent housing for herself and three young children. Her struggles and frustrations are highlighted in the documentary The Other City, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Monday, April 26 and highlights the stories of people with HIV/AIDS in the District.

What a difference a year makes. Now Edwards, 29, a member of Campaign to End AIDS, got Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) vouchers and is living in a four-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C.'s Southeast neighborhood. She got a fulltime job as an HIV testing counselor at the Community Education Group, her first time working full-time since she entered prison in 2003.

"My life's changed dramatically," Edwards said. "I'm no longer receiving public assistance. I'm very proud of myself. I've learned to become independent."

She said her three children, who are 10, 8 and 2 years old, are doing wonderfully.

"We have more space," she said. "And we don't have mice like we did in our old apartment."

This new life didn't just fall into Edwards' lap. Edwards, who The Washington Post describes as "a public face of AIDS in the District" was diagnosed with HIV when she was in prison in 2005. She and her three children entered the HOPWA housing waiting list in 2007, which currently has hundreds of people waiting for housing.

She didn't give up her quest for housing, advocating on behalf of herself and others for housing assistance at the district and federal level. She spoke at rallies and town halls, including a tearful press conference with the National AIDS Housing Coalition and Rep. Jerry Nadler.

Edwards has seen clips from her appearance in The Other City. In the film, she is one of multiple D.C. residents affected by the AIDS epidemic telling their story. She said she is less angry with the D.C. government than she was when the documentary was filmed a year ago.

"I was very upset and mad with [Director of the HIV/AIDS Administration] Dr. [Shannon] Hader," Edwards said. "I didn't know as far as funding cut back and housing for people that are infected. Now I know her hands were tied. I learned it wasn't Dr. Hader's fault. She was trying to fix a problem that was already there when she came. There was no funding."

She credits other Campaign to End AIDS members for teaching her how to advocate for herself and "teaching me the ropes of how policy and procedures go."

And Edwards said experience has made her even more of an advocate for the hundreds of other D.C. residents still on the D.C. HOPWA waiting list.

"They need to explain how the system works, to keep people from being confused," Edwards said. "And there needs to be some funding put to the side for people who are infected. Housing is the key component for us to manage this disease. How can people keep the medicine refrigerated if they don't have a refrigerator?"