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This article is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local D.C. newsrooms. You can see all of our collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information and add context to areas we may have overlooked.
Ten years ago an internist named Veronica Jenkins listened to multiple patients explain to her that they could not adhere to their HIV medication routine because they were struggling to gain stable housing. “Something about that just didn’t add up,” reflects Dr. Jenkins.
Shortly thereafter she founded Homes for Hope, a housing program for people with HIV and other chronic illnesses that has been been providing stability, support, and protection for some of D.C.’s most vulnerable residents for the last decade.
In her care, Homes for Hope residents manage their health.
“HIV is not really their problem because once you come here my charge is to make sure you stay adherent to your medicine. And you can’t get much past me because I’m a physician and I know how this stuff works,” says Jenkins. Residents must submit to weekly toxicology screenings, and they must get blood work done quarterly and submit the results to Jenkins for her review. “In fact for the last 10 years I don’t think we’ve had one client sick from an HIV related medical problem,” she says.
But her clients face other barriers. While HIV has become manageable, high rent and a host of other obstacles to stable housing have not.
Jenkins started her housing non-profit back in 2009 by purchasing one unit that contained two one-bedroom apartments. She was excited about the opportunity to provide stable housing to her patients. Slowly she built a small staff of workers who could help provide social services to get her clients back on their feet.
Over the years, Homes For Hope has flourished from one unit with two tenants to six units serving twelve tenants.
Residents pay 30 percent of their income—no matter how small—toward rent, and are only allowed to be in the program for 24 months. They must enroll in job training while staying with Homes for Hope. Jenkins recruited a trainer to provide interested residents with a six-week course to prepare them for a certified nurse assistant course, and there are also options for computer skills training and a food handler course.
The residents participate in group therapy sessions, which run several days a week, and get one-on-one sessions with a therapist. And stable housing enables them to store their medication in an enclosed space at the appropriate temperature, meaning they are more likely to be consistent with taking their antiretroviral therapy as prescribed. In the long run, this can lead to becoming undetectable—a term meaning very low copies of the virus in the system.
One current Homes for Hope resident is a 39-year-old immigrant who came to the States in 2009. Upon entrance he was diagnosed with HIV. He moved in with his nephew and found work while keeping a low profile. But last January, his nephew abruptly asked him to move out. He tried hotel rooms for a while, but when that became too much of a financial strain, he slept in his car. He continued taking his antiretroviral medications, but it was a struggle while he was on the streets.
He applied for programs and apartments throughout the winter, but his credit history locked him out of multiple opportunities. And although he remained employed, he couldn’t afford to keep getting rejected. “I spent a whole lot of money with application fees. And everything you pay is not refundable,” he says. “I spent pretty close to $500 just to apply.”
Homes For Hope accepted him at a unit in a quiet neighborhood in Southeast D.C. in July. He moved in the very day his application was approved.
But providing such a space is no small challenge for Jenkins. As she quickly learned, nonprofit business is not for the weak; the process of applying for grants is tough, and results often feel capricious. “Nobody told me that passion would be so costly and time consuming. You pay a part of every piece of your life. Nobody told me about running a business,” she says. “So here I am. I can write about 100 grants and I get maybe three to five.”
The search for apartments in the D.C. area is likewise intense. Since Homes For Hope is a only a temporary placement, Jenkins and her staff try to negotiate with small landlords to get rent levels that her clients can afford when they leave. Their credit scores and incomes, which mainly come from low wage jobs or disability pay, present an obstacle.
Jenkins says that financial issues make it hard for her to launch her clients into independence. “Most of them are doing that kind of work that pays $14,000 a year,” she says. “For most of the housing programs that the city supports, they have to have a job where they make at least $26,000 a year. Well if you’re making $12 an hour you’re not going to make it,” she explains.
Aging clients present a different challenge: finding an employer who will hire a senior citizen. “We have one gentleman who’s 67 years old who gets disability. Maybe $800 a month. Where’s he going to live? He can’t get a job. Who’s going to hire him? That’s what we’re up against.”
The federal government created HOPWA, or the Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS program, in 1990. Each state is granted funds to provide housing assistance for people living with the virus. In D.C., the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration (HAHSTA) handles this funding.
But distributing HOPWA funds in a city where the present median rent hovers around $1,550 for a two bedroom apartment can be daunting. “One of the top priorities that community members have expressed around the need is for housing,” explains Michael Kharfen, senior deputy director of HAHSTA. “HOPWA in itself obviously had never had the resources to serve everybody who lives with HIV. There just isn’t enough available funds for it.”
Another wall that can sometimes create a gap between clients and their financial goals: literacy. “Getting them employed is definitely a barrier,” Jenkins wearily explains. “Several employers give a test to see if they are capable of doing the job. Many of them score very poorly even though they have high school diplomas.”
Jenkins recruits community partners that can provide supportive services in more than one area. “We have a therapist on site. She comes according to the client’s schedules. She helps them with reading and math,” says Jenkins. “But some days she just listens to them. I think there are a lot of deep childhood trauma and substance abuse issues that have to be resolved.”
Despite obstacles, Jenkins continues to look for ways to expand, and she continues fundraising. “We’ve been thinking about reaching out to reentry citizens. There seems to be such a paucity of places where they can go,” she says. “And now we’ve opened up a new place in Capitol Heights called The Congregate Living Facility for Independent Men. We actually have three of the five units occupied with men who have had a myriad of problems with HIV, substance abuse, and one of them had jail time.”
She recently got an email from a man who was previously enrolled in her program and is now independent. She brightened as she described what he said. He finished school and bought himself a car. “Housing definitely makes a difference,” she says.