HIV/AIDS patients have refuge at Jackson facility

By The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Thousands of Mississippians with HIV/AIDS are homeless, but the state spends no money to help put a roof over their heads.

A small number can find housing assistance paid for with federal funds. The number is small, in part, because that money is tied to a formula that shortchanges the South — the region with the highest rates of new HIV infections and most AIDS deaths.

This is not only a humanitarian concern, experts say, but also a health dilemma: People with the disease are more likely to spread it if they’re homeless, and they’re more likely to die.

Often, as was once the case with Sam Wood, they have no home because someone kicked them out. Or they became too sick to work. Or, because of a profound and persistent social stigma, few people will rent them a place.

“Three years ago when I found out I had HIV, I was put out of the house I lived in,” said Wood, a Jackson-area resident in his 40s. “I had just forked out all this money to see all these doctors. I didn’t have enough for a deposit on an apartment. I got sicker and couldn’t work anymore. Finally, I went to Grace House and was able to stay there for about a year.”

For a handful of low-income people living with HIV/AIDS, Grace House in Jackson offers permanent housing. It’s the only such permanent housing facility in the state, said Ella Tardy, executive director.

“At least half the folks come from off the streets, then some from hospitals or from prisons,” Tardy said.

For years, Grace House also has operated two transitional homes, where residents get help finding jobs or job training.

“But we have a lot of folks who aren’t healthy enough to work; when they finally get their disability checks, it’s not enough for a good quality of life,” Tardy said.

As many as 18 people — 12 men, six women — can live in their two transitional houses.

Just six can stay in the permanent-living home. There is a waiting list, Tardy said.

Each year, Grace House also helps about 40 low-income HIV-positive residents pay rent with a federal, HUD grant administered through the state Department of Health — Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA).

“We don’t disclose to the landlord why we are paying the check,” Tardy said. “People who tell their landlords they have HIV often are no longer welcome.”

Mississippi received $1.92 million in HOPWA funds in 2010, according to the 2010 State Healthcare Access Research Project report.

Across the state, the number of people served amounted to fewer than 1,000.

HOPWA funds do not go to the homeless. You must have a home to be eligible for help.

And Mississippi does not participate in HOPWA programs that provide funds for long-term aid.

This failure to apply for all available federal funds “compounds an already urgent problem,” says the Human Rights Watch Report, “Rights at Risk.”

Still, the state of Alabama receives a similar amount of HOPWA funds but houses more people with it, said Megan McLemore, senior health researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In Alabama, HOPWA renewal grants awarded in 2010 came to $1.74 million.

Beyond Grace House, there are two other transitional facilities, one each in Hattiesburg and Biloxi.

The state has an estimated 9,500-plus people living with HIV/AIDS, nearly three out of four of whom are African Americans.

The real number is probably higher, experts say.

“There are individuals who are unknowingly infected,” said Dr. Nicholas Mosca, head of the Department of Health’s STD/HIV program.

As for the known population, he said, “housing is the No. 1 need, according to feedback we’ve had from advocacy groups.

“Housing helps people manage the disease, and if they can do that that decreases the amount of virus they carry. They are less likely to be able to spread the disease.”

It’s uncertain how many of this state’s 9,500 or so HIV-positive residents are also homeless or live “couch-to-couch.”

Some 3,500 are believed to have “housing instability,” said McLemore, citing a Mississippi Development Authority report. “I believe that number is low.”

It’s very low if national figures are any guide, said Robin Webb, director of Brave New Day, a statewide peer network for people with HIV.

“Two-thirds of those who are HIV-positive need some kind of federal housing assistance,” he said.

In this state, that would come to more than 6,200.

According to “Rights at Risk,” the estimated “unmet need” in Mississippi is at least 50 percent, compared to the national average of 33 percent.

That may go a long way toward explaining Mississippi’s death rate from AIDS, McLemore said.

“It’s 66 percent higher than the national average.”

People with HIV and no home are five times more likely to die, said Kathy Garner, with the Hattiesburg-based AIDS Services Coalition.

Some end up doing drugs, Tardy said.

“Or they engage in survival sex just for a meal,” she said.

But finding more federal funds for housing will be a problem as long as the current formula survives, McLemore said.

“The amount of money a state gets is based on cumulative cases.”

Although many other states have higher total numbers of cases since the discovery of AIDS in 1981, Mississippi now has the 10th highest rate of AIDS diagnosis in the country; it has the 16th highest rate of HIV diagnosis.

Yet, for its eligibility for HOPWA funds awarded in 2009, it ranked 25th out of 41 eligible states, plus D.C.

“The good news is that we have a state HIV director who is dedicated to increasing the number of people who are served,” McLemore said.

Mosca, who has held his position for six months, is seeking ideas from AIDS Alabama, which provides permanent housing and other services through partnerships.

“We need to do things more effectively here,” Mosca said.

One big challenge, as usual, is the state’s poverty rate.

HIV follows poverty, McLemore said. It also follows fear.

“I’ve talked to people who threw away their medication because they were afraid their family would find it,” she said. “Of course, they get sicker. In Mississippi, the fear of letting people know you have HIV is greater than the fear of the disease itself.”