Not all that long ago, it was hard to find a community willing to welcome a new apartment building for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS.
“Back in 2005, when we built our first building, it was a long, contentious process,” said Chuck Peterson, executive director of Clare Housing, a nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable and supportive housing options for people with HIV/AIDS. “For a number of reasons, that first neighborhood was not particularly supportive of us moving in.” A decade ago, Perterson said, “there was still a sense of fear and misinformation out there that we had to work hard to get around.”
But, thanks in part to the efforts of organizations like Clare Housing, cultural attitudes about HIV/AIDS and the people it impacts have changed. Last week, when the nonprofit opened Clare Terrace, its third building for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS, neighbors and city leaders in Robbinsdale enthusiastically packed the open house.
“Robbinsdale has been unbelievably supportive of having this project in their community,” Peterson said. “I would say 50 percent of the visitors at our open house last week were folks from the community and the city. The support and welcome has just been so overwhelming.”
This shift from community resistance to overwhelming support is significant, Peterson said, especially considering the fact that the face of HIV/AIDS has shifted, from a disease that initially struck mainly white, gay men to one that disproportionately affects poor people of color, many of whom cope with mental illness and addiction.
“Fifty percent of the folks we serve have mental illness,” said Michele Boyer, Clare Housing director of programs. “And approximately 60 percent have a substance-use disorder, either binge use or full-fledged addiction. This is very much a part of the community we serve at Clare.”
The mental illness and addiction connection
The strong connection between HIV/AIDS and drug use or mental illness exists because both conditions can increase a person’s likelihood of risk-taking behaviors.
“If somebody has a meth or crack cocaine addiction, those are stimulants that also can be highly sexualizing,” Boyer said. “If folks are using those drugs, they are more likely to want to be sexual and less likely to think about safer-sex practices when they are high. Alcohol has the same effect.”
And serious and persistent mental illness also puts some individuals at risk of unsafe activities, Boyer said: “It increases a person’s risk of self-harming behaviors. And when you add that to poverty and homelessness, the risk of contracting HIV just gets higher and higher.”
Mood-altering substances, which are often used to help people escape from harsh realities like poverty, racism or homophobia, limit users’ ability to behave in a rational of self-protecting manner, Boyer said. And even though state needle-exchange programs have been an effective way of limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS to IV drug users, Boyer still blames drugs and alcohol for a large percentage of infections.
“Male-to-male sex remains the highest mode of transmission in the state,” she said, “but many of those transmissions occurred when a man was drunk or high. That fact isn’t reflected in the data.”
Clare Housing develops, owns and manages eight residential programs in the Twin Cities for low-income people with HIV/AIDS. Three of the buildings (Clare Apartments in Northeast, Clare Midtown in South Minneapolis and Clare Terrace in Robbinsdale) are new construction; a fourth project is planned to break ground next year on Lowry and 2nd Street NE in Northeast with a scheduled July 2017 opening.
And next year, Clare Housing will expand services into St. Paul, when it partners with Project for Pride in Living (PPL) to provide supportive services to 10 units in its Hamline Station building on University and Hamline Avenues.
“PPL invited us to be part of this project,” Peterson said. “We will have 10 units there for long-term homeless people with HIV/AIDS.”
Peterson said that Clare Housing works to construct welcoming buildings that fit into the neighborhood.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on in the design of our buildings,” he said. “If someone drove by one of our buildings, they’d see that they look just like any other market-rate building in the community. They’re welcoming places for the community, residents and staff. We want them to be a home environment.”
Clare Terrace amenities
Clare Terrace, which features 460-square-foot studio apartments, had more than 120 applicants for the building’s 36 units, Peterson said: “There are three people for every one unit available. That mirrors the statewide affordable-housing situation.”
The building will fill gradually, with 12 residents scheduled to move in in December, 12 in January and 12 in February.
Like other Clare Housing buildings, Clare Terrace will be staffed with a full-time supportive-services manger and 24-hour resident assistants who will provide assistance to residents.
Residents at other Clare buildings have an option for full home-care services like nursing care, cleaning, laundry service and congregate dining, but Clare Terrace residents are able to live more independently. The building will feature a large community room and kitchen for residents and guests.
“We may host Sunday brunches,” Peterson said, “or events where people can gather and watch the Vikings or the Packers.”
Clare Terrace residents will administer and take their own HIV medications, though in certain cases staff will be available to help them remember to keep on top of their pills and stay connected to health-care providers. “We do think that we will have some clients who will want to have prompts and reminders via phone calls our staff,” Boyer said. “We will do that. Staff will also coordinate transportation to clinic visits.”
At the top, a sober floor
One feature that sets Clare Terrace apart from other Clare Housing buildings is the building’s top floor. Designated a sober floor, it will be leased only to residents committed to living drug-and-alcohol-free lives.
“The top floor has been designated a sober floor for folks who wish to live in a place where everyone else who lives there is working on recovery issues,” Boyer said. “This was a popular option with residents.”
But the entire building will not ban alcohol.
“Alcohol is a legal substance,” Boyer said. “It is not illegal for our clients to have it in their apartments. We want to work with people where they are at. We are a housing-first organization.” The difference, at Clare Terrace, Boyer explained, is in the keys. “For folks who lease on the sober floor, their fob only takes them to the sober floor. People who lease on other floors cannot access the sober floor from the stairwell.”