AIDS housing agency can't spend fast enough | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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AIDS housing agency can't spend fast enough 

Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
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Afflicted with a chronic rash that kept him from walking, the last thing 67-year-old AIDS patient Don Hammerich needed was to be homeless last spring and summer. Like many people with AIDS, however, he had a poor job record, and eventually lost his Hollywood apartment. He had moved in with a lover, then got ripped off by him.

Worried that sleeping on the street one more time would kill him off, Hammerich asked for help last spring from Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA), a city agency that dispenses $10 million in federal funds annually for AIDS housing. He was literally told to take a lottery number.

Hammerich found help dealing with his personal catastrophe when he obtained provided a temporary voucher from a local AIDS social-services agency, and he moved into the Russ Hotel on Skid Row. "Not a great place for a dying man," he said, but better than nothing. The voucher was good for only 30 days, however, and by spring Hammerich was back on the street. For the time being, friends and AIDS activists are putting him up in a Hollywood motel.

Hammerich is one among hundreds of homeless men with AIDS in Los Angeles who need help holding onto a place to live. But despite the infusions of federal money, the city's HOPWA program seems slow to respond. Program administrators were sitting on $12.9 million at the time of Hammerich's troubles, according to an April 1998 city-controller report, and continues to maintain as much as $7 million in unspent funds.

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Housing Department officials recognized the problem last year and commissioned a report by Shelter Partnership, Inc., to assess the scope of L.A.'s AIDS-housing shortfall. The survey, the first comprehensive study of its kind, consisted of 785 interviews with clients of area AIDS service organizations. Two-thirds of those contacted said that, on average, they had been homeless twice in the previous three years. Forty-five percent said that they were currently homeless, and 64 percent had lived in their current homes for less than one year. Since those interviewed are already clients of some form of service agency and are already receiving help, the figures suggest that other poor people with AIDS and HIV face an even tougher housing problem.

So far, the city has mounted only a limited response, with only 114 beds available at a variety of residential units and AIDS-dedicated buildings. HOPWA augments that number by contracting with 23 local AIDS agencies, which then offer short-term, "shallow" assistance ($300 every 90 days), emergency vouchers (providing a 30-day residence at single-room-occupancy hotels) or longer-term and much-coveted "Section 8-like" certificates. (Such assistance gives AIDS patients a roof over their heads by making payments directly to the landlord.) Because there is such a large demand for these awards, some agencies enter client names in a lottery. When HOPWA money becomes available, several hundred names are picked from among thousands.

It's a cumbersome procedure that has left millions in unspent funds sitting with city officials. And for months now, activists have been demanding a change.

HOPWA's most vocal critic is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the nation's largest AIDS medical provider. The City Council, in July, requested a full report from HOPWA to explain what was being done with the $13 million, but none was produced. Throughout October, the foundation pressed its case with full-page ads in the L.A. Weekly accusing Mayor Richard Riordan of creating a private and public health emergency through gross mismanagement. The effort culminated in an October 10 overnight vigil in front of the Getty House, the official-but-uninhabited mayoral mansion, with the AHF calling for a federal audit of the program.

For some, the HOPWA dispute simply reflects a number of longstanding feuds and rivalries within the AIDS community itself. In particular, AIDS Healthcare Foundation head Michael Weinstein has become a target. "If Michael is so concerned about homeless people with AIDS," argues Mary Lucey, an AIDS activist who runs the office of the L.A. City AIDS Coordinator, "why doesn't he sit on the HOPWA advisory committee?" AIDS Project Los Angeles executive director Craig Thompson is more reserved. "There may be disagreements about how money is spent, but we have no doubt that the money is going toward projects," Thompson says.

Almost everyone chalks up the recent battle to age-old animosities between Weinstein and L.A. City AIDS Coordinator Ferd Eggan, arguing that Weinstein wants HOPWA's money. Indeed, a memo Eggan helped draft last month denounced criticism of the program as "distorted and potentially dangerous misinformation promulgated by a disgruntled agency."

For his part, Weinstein says he has no interest in distributing housing funds, and puts the onus back on the city. "It's an outrage for anyone with AIDS in Los Angeles to go homeless when millions of federal dollars in AIDS-housing money is sitting untapped in city coffers," Weinstein says.

Whatever the interests of the foundation, there remain millions in federal dollars to answer for. Romerol Malveaux, an official at the L.A. City Housing Department, met with the Weekly recently in an effort to explain the controversial HOPWA budget. It's a complex system influenced by several variables: The city is on a different fiscal year than the federal government, HUD is going through a consolidation program and the HOPWA advisory committee (comprised of AIDS-community members) is reassessing how it allocates money.

Malveaux says that, last year, the HOPWA committee allocated almost $5 million for "shallow subsidies," but then discovered that nearly $3 million of that had gone unspent - clients were either too poor or too rich to qualify for the $100-per-month stipend. That's when she commissioned the Housing Survey to find out what had gone wrong. "We didn't want to put our money prematurely into programs until we had assessed how people's needs were changing."

Malveaux broke down the March 1998 budget (which shows $12.5 in "unencumbered funds") to demonstrate that, at the time of the controller's report the following month, $3.6 million was in the process of being approved for support services. That wasn't accounted for in the controller's report because, until the City Council approves allocations, the federal government "doesn't draw down the money." In addition, $950,000 had been allocated for the development of San Pedro House, an AIDS-dedicated home, and an additional $220,000 was allocated to a study to measure the impact of the HOPWA program. A total of $647,000 went into administering HOPWA (the city got $272,000, and participating agencies received $347,000).

That leaves $7.1 currently as "unencumbered funds," $2 million of which has since gone into the "shallow subsidy," with an additional $1.3 million put into developing AIDS-dedicated units, Malveaux says. But that means that almost $5 million is still sitting around at the moment, unused, although it is earmarked for long-term assistance.

"There is no question that some of the money was not put into operation fast enough," Malveaux concedes. "I am not saying we always run perfectly. But we try to be diligent." That's not enough for HOPWA's critics at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "They are playing with millions," says Miki Jackson, a consultant with the foundation. "Can you imagine that in the midst of all this scandal, they have no spreadsheet?"

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