By Violet Law, June 15, 2006 Pittsburgh City Paper
A small group of people committed to helping chronically homeless AIDS patients wants to demonstrate that there is another way to house them ... one that isn't dependent on the government, but that can be a medical boon to patients.
Social worker Dana Davis, who founded the group The Open Door, Inc., was tired of seeing her clients with multiple issues ... such as AIDS and addictions ... scrambling for housing, crashing with someone and then returning to the streets. Many homeless people with AIDS experience lengthy waits for government-housing subsidies; because of their addictions and troubled history, they are routinely turned down by federally funded housing programs that serve those with disabilities (a government category that includes those with HIV/AIDS). Such delays harm their ability to keep up with treatment regimens and live productive lives, Davis believes.
"We felt that what is truly needed for folks to be stably housed, no one would do," says Davis, who works at Positive Health Clinic, an Allegheny General Hospital affiliate that treats those with the virus.
So Davis, her domestic partner and a few colleagues decided to turn their frustration into an experiment in sheltering those patients who are especially hard to house. Eighteen months ago, they bought an old apartment building on the North Side after an anonymous backer took out a mortgage and a renovation loan. Since then, the group members -- including a clinic doctor and a financial analyst with Alcoa -- have rehabbed the structure themselves, down to polishing the wooden floor.
The building will one day be able to house up to 15 people; on June 2, The Open Door opened to its first three residents. Each evening, a resident monitor is on hand to handle emergencies, and in the future, the group hopes to organize social activities and provide on-site case management. Wary of potentially unhappy neighbors, the group would not disclose the building's address, nor allow reporters to speak with tenants.
Open Door practices a "harm reduction" approach, one that accommodates addicts while they are getting help to kick the habit. It charges tenants $300 to $500 a month in rent, depending on their income from disability benefits or jobs, and operates without any government grants. For now, private donations are underwriting staff expenses. The group is seeking non-profit status.
"We'd like to have a little bit of flexibility of who we serve," says Mary Hawk, a group member and a grant writer for the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. "We'd like to demonstrate success without federal money. A big part of what we're doing is to listen to individual needs. We try to think about how to serve the people differently. [But] we are not so naïve as to think we're the answer" to the housing problem.
In fact, the answer to permanent housing for those with AIDS or HIV may not lie anywhere in the Pittsburgh region. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated the seven-county area as the recipient for money from its Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA) program. The Downtown-based Jewish Healthcare Foundation is responsible for disbursing the money, and mostly provides short-term rental assistance or emergency housing for up to a year. For the year ending June 30, the foundation received $558,000 under HOPWA, but foundation officials were unsure how many people this placed.
Meanwhile, the wait for housing help has gotten longer, says Dr. Doyin Desalu, coordinator of the Southwestern Pennsylvania AIDS Planning Coalition, which surveys those with AIDS or HIV to determine their service needs. Because of advances in treatment, people with AIDS are living longer ... which means turnover among tenants participating in the program has nearly stalled for the past six to seven years, Desalu says.
Data from the coalition's most recent assessment, in 2004, show that at least 140 patients ... 10 percent of the 1,420 surveyed ... didn't have any permanent housing, such as Open Door provides. It's uncertain how many would be interested in entering the Open Door program: Most of those surveyed said they wouldn't like to live in clusters designated for AIDS or HIV carriers.
Both Davis and Hawk say they're mindful of concern from those who say, "Not in my backyard." But at least one community member lauded the effort.
"I think it's a wonderful thing: People can get the help and support they need and live independently," says Ronell Guy, a Perry Hilltop homeowner and leader of the North Side Partnership for Fair Housing. "I wish in every neighborhood anyone living with this devastating disease could be supported."