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Against the backdrop of the city’s ongoing affordable housing crisis, Winston-Salem City Council has unanimously approved $588,048 in funds for Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS.
Winston-Salem was only recently deemed a large enough city to receive HOPWA funds, which have been around since the 1990s, awarded to cities with at least 500,000 people, 2,000 of whom are living with HIV or AIDS.
“Not only did we know how important it was back [in the 90s], but housing was one of the few things that could be given to folks with HIV, and folks were getting kicked out of housing left and right because of their HIV status,” said Rivkah Chaya Levine, the former North Carolina HOPWA program coordinator.
“It’s a straightforward relationship, because housing is healthcare,” she said. “Having stable, safe housing dramatically increases health outcomes, whether one has HIV or not.”
The US Health Resources and Services Administration aims to end the HIV epidemic in the US by reducing the number of new HIV infections to fewer than 3,000 annually, which would mean HIV would no longer meet the definition of an epidemic. HOPWA funds are meant to help move towards that goal.
Right now, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 36,000 people in North Carolina are currently HIV positive, with about 12 percent of those people unaware of their status. The state has about 970 new infections per year. North Carolinians with HIV will spend an estimated $501,000 to treat the infection over the course of their lifetimes.
“It’s a great thing that’s happening for the community, those impacted by HIV or AIDS,” said Nathan Scovens, the pastor at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church. Galilee has previously served as an HIV testing site.
“For a long time, there has been so much misinformation, but we’ve discovered you can live with it and have quality lives,” Scovens continued. “I’m proud of our community and our leadership for investing in the citizens who have been challenged by HIV or AIDS.”
Housing is thought of by many organizations as a preventative measure for people at high risk of HIV, such as people experiencing homelessness and those engaging in high-risk sex work. It is also a way to keep viral load low in people already living with HIV.
“Our folks that are immunocompromised, for them to be in the shelter or in the streets is not conducive to health,” said Michael Anders, the lead case manager as well as the medical and housing supervisor at the Positive Wellness Alliance. “We want to build that foundation to keep them healthy at home.”
PWA is one organization benefitting from HOPWA funds in Winston-Salem. They are known for helping with case management as well as housing and financial assistance for people living with HIV or AIDS.
Once PWA has the money, it will funnel directly into client services, including housing vouchers, which is their biggest need according to Anders, who now oversees HOPWA funds at PWA. The money can also go to mortgage, rent and utility assistance.
Like Anders, Savalas R. Squire Sr., who does HIV testing at Piedmont Health, has seen a number of clients that would benefit from stable housing. Many of his clients are on strict medication regimens and are sometimes unable to get or take their medication if they do not have stable housing.
“A person diagnosed with HIV, our effort is to make sure that individual has access to that medication and can adhere to a medication plan,” said Squire. “If a person is on medication with HIV, their viral load can go to undetectable so they can’t transmit it.”
With HIV, if a person’s viral load is undetectable, that means they cannot transmit the virus to other people.
“I’ve been hearing the conversations about funding and in Winston-Salem particularly, there has been a challenge for housing for individuals living with HIV,” said Squire. “So to see this, I’m personally really excited because I know what it will mean for my clients.”
Given the current housing crisis, organizations will need think hard about how they use HOPWA funds.
“Folks within the HIV community are creative and have been able to make magic happen,” said Christina Adeleke, the policy and communications manager at NC AIDS Action Network. “But when we think about the number of affordable housing vouchers available for folks, there are waiting lists for folks that want to stay within the county. There are also vouchers for folks that want to move into surrounding counties. That’s not always easy though.”
When it comes to HOPWA, the program does not necessarily have to be used as a housing voucher, but can be used as rental assistance or other kinds of support.
“If you talk to folks in the testing field or case managers who work with folks long term, if the housing piece is not there, it’s a huge barrier for folks,” said Adeleke. “If people are trying to figure out where to stay that night or long term, they’re not thinking about their health. They’re not getting tested. If they’re already in treatment, getting that refill doesn’t seem so important in that moment.”
The Positive Wellness Alliance will be hosting an event for World AIDS Day at Wise Man Brewing in Winston-Salem. The event will take place on Dec. 1 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and will include live music, food trucks and bingo.