It’s difficult enough being a mother with HIV or the mother of an HIV-positive child—or both. It’s even more difficult if you don’t have stable housing, a situation faced by many people with HIV.
“If they don’t have any place to live, they’re not going to be adhering to their medications,” says Kathie Hiers, CEO of AIDS Alabama and president of the National AIDS Housing Coalition. To address the problem, AIDS Alabama and similar organizations around the nation are now providing housing to families in which at least one member is HIV-positive, but the demand still often exceeds the available space.
And, more often or not, the families served tend to be headed by single moms.
The threat of homelessness, or the reality, results from a variety of factors, including discrimination and lack of resources. Chicago House and Social Service Agency was founded in 1985, when it was common for people with HIV to be kicked out of their homes. Initially, it largely served individuals, but in 1992 it opened an apartment building dedicated to serving families, the first such facility in the Midwest. It added a second family building in 2009 and now also has scattered-site units for families, on the whole housing about 25 families at any given time, says CEO Stan Sloan. He estimates that Chicago House has provided homes to 300 families since 1992, and in most of them the mother has been the only parent in the household.
The story is similar at AIDS Alabama, which got into the housing business in the early 1990s, serving individuals, then recognized the need to expand its mission. In 1993 the group built its first family complex, which was also the first in the South, says Hiers. Her organization also administers federally funded vouchers under the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS law, allowing HIVers statewide to find housing on the open market.
“We’ve always known that people have better health outcomes when they have safe, affordable housing,” says Hiers. That knowledge was initially based strictly on informal observation, but once researchers undertook some scientific studies, they generated enough evidence to fill an entire issue of the journal AIDS and Behavior, she says.
AIDS Alabama’s experience has been similar to Chicago House’s in that most of its family households have consisted of a single mother with children. Women with families have a particular need for housing and other supportive services, says Hiers: “Nine times out of 10, they’re going to be putting those children ahead of their own health needs.”
These organizations and other housing providers for people with HIV offer additional services to their residents, such as case management to coordinate their health care; transportation; and tutoring and recreational programs for children. “Prior to our families getting here, there’s so little hope for them,” Sloan says, but stable housing and related services help improve their quality of life.
The goal of supportive housing providers is to allow residents to stabilize their health and finances to the point that they can move on to housing available on the general market. For some this process takes a few months, for others several years. Sloan sums it up this way: “People can stay,” he says, “as long as they need to build a whole life.”