On a hot July Sunday last year, Vaughn Pinkett was riding his bike near the intersection of Benning Road and 36 Street NE when a driver struck him.
The 52-year-old D.C. resident lay on the street, immobile, hoping someone would move him onto a sidewalk. “I can’t get off the ground, it’s blazing hot, and I’m like, ‘Somebody move my ass into the shade,’” he says.
The incident injured his right shoulder, hip, left foot, and left hand. (The police report classifies the injuries as “minor scratch[es].”) Pinkett, who is unemployed and has been homeless off and on since the early ’80s (“I’ve been homeless in some real D.C. winters”), hasn’t yet had surgery, which he says he needs to correct his injuries. The driver who struck Pinkett was uninsured, which means Pinkett couldn’t collect any damages. He and his partner are so busy filing unrelated paperwork almost every day—applications for shelters, medical assistance, and voucher programs—Pinkett says he hasn’t had the time to legally pursue the driver.
And Pinkett says his partner’s medical care takes precedence over his own. Chuck Carl, 55, has been diagnosed with manic depression and is currently on a two-month leave from a custodial job because of medical issues.
They are both also HIV-positive and struggling to find a shelter that will take them in. Some nights they are, as they say, “obedient,” and stay in tent encampments. Other times, Pinkett says, he feels like “raising hell.” Those nights, he and Carl will camp right in front of Anacostia’s Big Chair on Martin Luther King Avenue SE.
Housing resources in the District are undeniably scarce for members of the HIV-positive community. The only dedicated subsidized housing funding for low-income, HIV-positive residents is a federal program called Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS that, based on a distribution formula, allocates grant money annually to states and metropolitan areas. For fiscal year 2016, D.C., as well as nearby counties in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, received an $11.1 million grant, the fourth-highest amount of funding nationally. Of that $11.1 million, $6.1 million stayed within the District; that’s almost $2 million less than the HOPWA portion D.C. received in 2012 ($7.8 million) and 2013 ($7.5 million).
HOPWA’s programming takes a four-pronged approach to housing HIV-positive people experiencing or at risk for homelessness. The first—tenant-based rental assistance—takes up the majority of D.C.’s HOPWA grant money: It’s a voucher that is functionally similar to the Housing Choice (formerly called Section 8) program in which an individual or household pays 30 percent of their income toward rent. The second provides funds for emergency or transitional housing. The others include short-term rental, mortgage, and utilities assistance (as well as other small bills that, when unpaid, often lead to eviction) and housing information and referral services.
In addition to $200,000 in local funds to provide short-term assistance for this community, the D.C. Council made a one-time allocation of $500,000 in the fiscal year 2016 budget to replace a reduction in federal funds for HIV-specific housing.
Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser charged District leaders with ensuring that, by 2020, 90 percent of D.C. residents with HIV know their status, are in treatment, and achieve viral load suppression. Known as the 90-90-90-50 goal, it also calls for a 50-percent reduction in new HIV cases by that deadline. But some advocates worry that, instead of continuing improvements, slowing the stream of financial support for HIV services (and taking HOPWA’s successes for granted) will sacrifice the progress that’s been made in reducing the number of AIDS-related deaths.
Inside a three-story Adams Morgan home, eight residents—along with staff and volunteers—lounged in mismatched armchairs and sofas for “Tune In Tuesdays.”
“Sometimes it’s good to just have quiet,” says Scott Sanders, deputy director of Joseph’s House, which cares exclusively for low-income residents living with late-stage AIDS and terminal cancer. Those are just the threshold requirements: Many also live with substance-abuse issues, mental illnesses, and other diseases.
A calico cat named Carmen rubs against a dark wooden door adorned with construction-paper collages. In the adjacent dining room, a fish tank bubbles across from picturesque windows draped in Christmas lights that overlook Lanier Place NW. On one wall hangs a 12-square-foot mural inspired by the New Testament and rendered in bright yellow, teal, and crimson.
For many residents, it feels like home if “home” would cost just over $1 million annually to run.
Executive Director Patricia Wudel recalls that one former patient was so overwhelmed when she walked through the door for the first time—she believed she could feel the spirits of deceased residents’ ancestors lingering in the entryway, Wudel says—she wouldn’t come back to Joseph’s House for months.
It’s also a beautiful, spiritual home. It’s a place where Wudel says a “sense of family or belonging is cultivated”; that sense of community is one of the factors Wudel and Sanders say contributes most to rehabilitation. With a warm, clean, safe place to stay, patients develop both a social safety net and a sense of personal pride. They feel motivated to recover and return to independent living.
A home like this, particularly for low-income residents living with HIV, is rare. Joseph’s House can take in only about ten residents at a time, and while the average stay is four to six months, some patients stay up to a year. (HOPWA funds allow stays of up to two years.) There are 16,000 people living with HIV in the District, many of them low-income residents of Wards 7 and 8.
For Pinkett, the emotional burden of living as a homeless, HIV-positive man was easier to bear when he had a network of friends—other HIV-positive people living in the city, including transgender men and women—who would look out for each other, like saying “‘Honey, it’s been three days since you changed, you need some new clothes. Let’s take you shopping,’” Pinkett says. But over the years, the disease claimed the lives of many of the people Pinkett would see around the city. That support network died with them.
And for a city that has desperately struggled to meet its overwhelming demand for affordable housing, this is a subpopulation that’s often left behind.
Michael Kharfen, the D.C. Department of Health’s senior deputy director for the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration, says that the waiting list for HOPWA’s tenant-based rental assistance is about 1,200 people long. With a turnover of just ten people per year, that leaves the waitlist at 120 years long if a patient were to sign up today—and that waitlist is only for people who are already in apartments or homes. (“If I could afford rent for [dozens of] years, I wouldn’t need the damn waiting list in the first place,” Pinkett says.)
“We have far fewer funds for temporary housing and for the other services that are part of the program,” Kharfen says. “The initial intention of the program was that this would only be temporary, and that would be either because recipients were at the end of their lives—which of course has changed, fortunately—or that the patient has transferred to another housing assistance program, such as Section 8 [whose waitlist closed in 2012].”
“What we find is that transitional or permanent supportive housing specifically for HIV diagnoses—I’ve never heard of it,” says Brittany Walsh, manager of patient retention for HIV health center Whitman-Walker Health.
Even those with substance abuse problems who have been successfully rehabilitated at Joseph’s House often backslide when they leave that environment—a support system that encourages healthy medical practices and administers their medication.
“When [patients] leave here, if they do—and many of them do—having the kind of place they need to stay… is sort of missing in the continuum. And so we think that needs to be a focus,” says Sanders, who testified before D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development Director Peggy Donaldson in October to advocate for increased funding for affordable, HIV-specific housing. “Intensive, permanent supportive housing is one piece of the puzzle that needs to be [addressed].”
It would be difficult for Pinkett and Carl to find a place like Joseph’s House to live together; it’s rare enough for two beds to open up simultaneously in one shelter—particularly in a facility that small. And even when they do, the couple isn’t guaranteed a spot. Two weeks ago, Pinkett says, he and Carl were turned away from a shelter that serves HIV-positive adults with substance abuse issues operated by Regional Addiction Prevention, Inc.
“We’re a couple. Salt n’ peppa on everybody’s table. They say, ‘OK, but you both can’t stay here.’ We were and still are taxpayers to the District of Columbia. And I think you’re getting an upgrade by taking us in. But they’re telling us, ‘We’re not gonna take couples,” Pinkett says.
Greg Mims, a case manager, says RAP’s facilites have never admitted couples. He adds that he referred Pinkett and Carl to another shelter.
Pinkett says he doesn’t understand why a shelter wouldn’t want to give them a room, since they’re in as good a position as could be expected of a couple in their position—they take their respective medications religiously, take pride in their hygiene and style (the first time I met Pinkett, he wore a black faux fur coat), are politically active (Pinkett was an advocate for the National Association of People With AIDS), and have each other as an emotional support system (the couple has been together for 12 years).
“We went through what we went through. Done everything we were asked to do. And still trying to be civil when you’re telling me, ‘Bitch, who’s your mother? How much blood you got left?’ How much of this shit you going to take? Not much. Not much.” CP
This is part one in a series on housing for HIV-positive residents in D.C.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery