Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Darby Penney describes how the Damien Center in Albany, New York is rebuilding after a devastating fire, expanding its services to include low-demand housing for people living with HIV/AIDS who are experiencing homelessness.
When the Albany (New York) Damien Center, a grassroots support program for people living with HIV/AIDS, lost its building to fire in August 2013, no one envisioned that a vital new service for its members might someday be born out of the ashes. Staff and members struggled to rebuild the sense of safety and community that the Damien Center had provided since 1990, hastily setting up temporary operations in the First Lutheran Church. For months, everyone was in shock, working to slowly replace what was lost and attempting to reconnect with members, many of whom stayed away after the fire damaged the only place where they felt safe. As a new board member, I was in shock, too, trying to provide practical help, but not yet quite clear how I could be most useful.
Months passed with no settlement from the insurance company. While extremely grateful for the church’s hospitality, Executive Director Perry Junjulas felt like the organization was in a holding pattern, unable to plan for the future. Staff, members, volunteers, and board members were traumatized by the many losses, and the strain took a toll on everyone. It was a trying time for our community.
Amidst this uncertainty, Tracy Neitzel, a visionary leader in homeless services in New York’s Capital District, began a conversation with Junjulas about the possibility of branching out to provide low-demand permanent supportive housing for people living with HIV/AIDS. Junjulas was well aware of the desperate need for stable housing among Damien Center members, about 40 percent of whom are homeless or precariously housed. However with no experience administering housing programs, initially this idea seemed like a stretch. But Neitzel, recently retired after 22 years as executive director of Joseph’s House and Shelter in Troy, New York, was persistent and encouraging. A pioneer in harm reduction and Housing First approaches to homelessness, she noted that the Damien Center’s practice of accepting members as they are, without imposing extensive rules, was in sync with low-demand housing models for people experiencing homelessness.
Junjulas, too, recognized the commonality in the approaches and became intrigued by the possibility of redefining the organization’s mission to include housing. “There is a big need for this approach to housing for our members. They struggle with lots of challenges beyond HIV/AIDS, like poverty, mental health, and substance abuse disorders,” he said. “There are other local housing programs for people with HIV/AIDS, but they impose strict rules that many of our members are incapable of meeting, because their lives are often in chaos. Many members are trauma survivors, and these kinds of rules kick up their trauma responses.”
The turning point came when Neitzel arranged for Damien Center board members to tour Hill Street Inn, a low-demand permanent supportive housing program for people unable to deal with rule-bound housing. The building—funded by state and federal money and designed by architect Owen Neitzel, Tracy’s husband—offers 18 studio apartments and two one-bedroom apartments for couples. “We believe in no rules without reasons,” Neitzel said, “and all of our rules are safety-based. People don’t need to be sober to live here; people can smoke in their own apartments, just like anyone else. We find that people often make changes in their behavior when they know it improves their chances of keeping their apartments, because having their own place is very important to them. But we don’t ask people to adhere to rules except those that ensure everyone’s safety.”
The tour opened board members’ eyes to new opportunities. Talking with tenants at the Inn, we saw first-hand the dramatic effect that having a safe place to call one’s own had on people with long histories of homelessness who had trouble with arbitrary rules. We also learned about the intersection of HIV/AIDS and homelessness. The numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS who move into Joseph’s House supported housing is disproportionally high, without any outreach or active recruitment.
As the National AIDS Housing Coalition (NAHC) points out, people experiencing homelessness have higher rates of HIV infection than the population at large, and people living with HIV/AIDS are at greater risk of homelessness than the population at large. NAHC has also demonstrated that “housing assistance is a powerful and cost-effective way to improve HIV health outcomes and prevent new infections” (National AIDS Housing Coalition, 2013).
With the board energized and committed to the new vision, plans moved fast. The insurance company settled and a new property, located close to Albany Medical Center, the regional HIV/AIDS treatment center, is under contract to be purchased. The Damien Center proposes to build a new center there, designed by architect Owen Neitzel, which will include its agency headquarters and program space, as well as 20 units of low-demand permanent supportive housing to serve 22 people living with HIV/AIDS.
New York State’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program (HHAP) has funds available for capital construction costs. Tracy Neitzel helped the Damien Center prepare and submit a HHAP grant in the fall of 2014; a decision on this grant is expected soon. Beyond capital costs, the major concern is how operating costs will be sustained. The Damien Center will have access to some housing subsidies for eligible people, which recently became available after other local programs closed. Without such subsidies, the monthly rent would not be affordable for people who rely on disability benefits.
Meanwhile, Junjulas has cultivated relationships with neighbors, civic groups, and politicians to educate them about the need for and benefits of the proposed housing project. These efforts have been successful in building strong community backing, including the support of the neighborhood association and Common Council members. The zoning board approved the project, and groundbreaking is anticipated in the spring of 2015. When the program opens, hopefully in spring 2016, it will be the only Housing First model available in Albany for people living with HIV/AIDS.
National AIDS Housing Coalition (2013). Housing is HIV Prevention & Care (fact sheet). Available at http://nationalaidshousing.org/PDF/FactSheet.pdf
More information about the Albany Damien Center is available at http://www.albanydamiencenter.org/
More information about Joseph’s House and Shelter is available at http://www.josephshousetroy.org/
Interested in being an HRC Guest Blogger? Email us at HomelessPrograms@samhsa.hhs.gov.