By George Chidi, contributor
A guy at City Hall wearing a rumpled blue sport coat and five layers of indignation over a shirt and tie that had seen better days started talking to me about being homeless in Atlanta yesterday.
“Someone is stealing all the money for homeless people,” he said, launching into a complicated plot.
I started to give the same talk I give to every strip mall pastor and poverty tourist passing out sandwiches on a street corner, ready to tell him about how the system actually works and what the real problems are, because I am of course imbued with mystical journalist powers and collect inside dope like someone still pays me for it. I spend more time than is healthy trying to tell people that conspiracy theories distract us from the actual problems that are in our faces.
But I stopped. My lecture would sound like his jacket looked: threadbare. It doesn’t matter that his pet conspiracy theory is probably wrong. The truth is worse.
Atlanta gets more than $40 million in federal money to keep people with HIV from dying in the street. For two years running, city government has screwed it up by not spending the money. Atlanta has something like $30 million left in the bank that should have been spent on permanent supportive housing. HUD is pissed. Service providers are pissed. And LGBT advocates are beyond pissed.
After spending money to house people, HOPE Atlanta, Positive Impact Health Centers and others submitted invoices against the city’s account for Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS, or HOPWA. They then waited as much as nine months for repayment on charges that should take sixty days or less to pay. That’s led to service providers closing their doors and evicting people.
There are three things to keep in mind here.
First, the national rate for HIV infection is about one in 215 adults. In most of Atlanta it’s closer to one in 30. In two downtown and midtown Atlanta zip codes, it’s one in 14.
Second, the rental market is tight enough in Atlanta today for property managers to tell anyone they like to pound sand. Landlords can be choosy. Someone offering rent using a housing voucher is likely to be denied unless the provider has a solid pre-existing working relationship.
And third, people with HIV who don’t have housing are about ten times more likely to end up dead.
The largest HOPWA provider, the Living Room, effectively closed its doors because the city couldn’t figure out how to pay it on time. Calls to the Living Room’s office today meet a message saying staff will return August 28th. We’ll see. I think it’s the Dead Room now, snuffed right along with the city’s credibility. And there’s no one left in the system with the capacity to pick up where the Living Room left off.
The evictions started three weeks ago. We saw this coming two years ago.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took the federal program away from city staff last month and gave it to Cathryn Marchman, who runs the city’s homelessness nonprofit Partners for Home. I’ve known Cathryn for years. I’m incredibly confident in her ability to handle a crisis. And she’s apparently making headway quickly to keep people housed.
But given mounting public complaints about increasing street homelessness, she’s under perfectly ridiculous amounts of pressure to perform right now. She doesn’t have $40 million worth of extra staff ready to go with no warning; if she did, we’d be wondering what they had been doing all this time.
Thus emerges the human catastrophe and public policy nightmare. It gives life to every crank who thinks one half of city government is on the take and the other half is incompetent. It tells every social services provider to expect sniper fire if they complain about being stiffed on a bill. And the next time the city asks people to make an accommodation for homelessness, every NIMBY in town will shout, “You don’t really care about homeless people. Why should we?”
Members of the city’s volunteer LGBT advisory board have told me, quietly, that they may have to resign in order to maintain credibility with the community. It’s the only play they have left, since none of the emails or phone calls or quiet conversations or very loud conversations at very loud public meetings appear to have had the desired effect.
The Living Room’s complaints were loudest, of course, because they were the biggest. The city responded by terminating its contracts and accusing it of mismanagement. The Living Room’s CEO then accused a city staffer of retaliating for a spurned romantic advance, which I note only because it’s just as stupid if it’s true as if it’s not.