This is not the American dream’

Abbie Vansickle

Pat is thin and wiry. Her bony fingers wove in and out of her curly red hair as she talked, her voice alternating between the strong, confident tone of a middle-aged woman and the tiny whisper of a child.

Surrounded by oil paintings of Christ and other religious scenes, she sat in an empty conference room in the Evanston United Methodist Church. Quietly, the woman told me it was time to make a confession.

“I have HIV.”

Pat found out she had the virus that causes AIDS in 1999 when she was diagnosed with PCP pneumonia, normally found only in birds, and fell into a coma for five days. But even then she refused to admit the truth.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m a good Catholic girl. We don’t sleep around,'” she said, her blue eyes twinkling amusedly. “Then I told myself, ‘I’m not going to give up without a fight.'”

So Pat, who asked that her last name not be used because she works in retail and her employer doesn’t know she has HIV, began to fight.

Living alone – her husband Bob, a lawyer, had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in the 1980s and died in 1993 – Pat struggled to make ends meet. Quitting her job as an art teacher in an inner-city school because she feared she could infect her students, she began to work commercially out of her small apartment in Evanston.

Fighting for some semblance of normalcy, she produced enough artwork to pay the rent, buy a few groceries and afford her medications.

For the past two years, Pat has survived. However, with the economy in a downward spiral, rent skyrocketing and her health in decline, Pat can no longer afford her small Evanston apartment.

She started looking in other neighborhoods near Chicago. No luck. She looked in the city, in areas such as Rogers Park, where rents are typically lower than Evanston. But she could not find anything.

So Pat has to move. She doesn’t know where she’s going yet. Milwaukee, perhaps. Her children live there, and rent is a little lower. But she’s not sure. All she knows is that she has to leave quietly or face eviction.

“I know I’m not the only one,” she said, her voice barely audible. “I don’t feel like I’m a victim. It’s a real challenge in our society. I have enough to worry about now without worrying all the time about where I’ll get the next dollar.”

Pat’s story is all too familiar, said Michael Hurley, housing director for Better Existence with HIV, or BEHIV, an Evanston-based non-profit organization that offers counseling, housing advice and other services for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Hurley said several factors contribute to the AIDS housing problem in Chicago. Among them: the increase in life expectancy of people living with HIV and AIDS (a 300 percent drop in the morbidity rate in the last five years), the increase in Chicago’s infection rate (which has grown to twice the national rate), the gentrification of neighborhoods and the decrease in monetary support and public awareness of HIV and AIDS in the past few years.

“I’ve been at this job for eight years,” Hurley said. “When I first started, I would find private units in Evanston where someone living on $700 a month could survive. That just isn’t there anymore. The options in the private market have simply disappeared.”

Not only have the private market housing options for AIDS patients disappeared, Hurley said, but the non-profit and government-supported housing choices have also dwindled to almost nothing.

“There’s no incentive for a community like Evanston to build low-income housing,” he said. “The cost is extremely high, especially when the economy is tight and there is very little social support among middle class and upper middle class people for low-income housing in their communities.”

Hurley’s observations are echoed by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago in its “Five-Year Chicago Area HIV/AIDS Housing Plan” – a study released in November. In its study, the Foundation reports that the need for affordable housing among AIDS patients will overreach the available spaces in 2002, leaving more than 5,000 AIDS patients without stable shelter. The Foundation also reported this number is likely to increase each year as the number of infected people grows and the mortality rate declines.

Despite the widespread coverage of the lack of affordable housing in Chicago, AIDS Foundation housing manager Norma Samame said she doesn’t think anyone really understands how dire the situation is for AIDS patients.

“I don’t think anybody is surprised that there’s a shrinkage in the affordable housing market, but what that means hasn’t kicked in yet,” Samame said. “We hope everyone will get it now and say, ‘Oh my God, these people are living with AIDS. Safe and stable housing is key to their health.'”

One of the most startling statistics in the study, Samame said, was the gap between available housing units – 115,000 – and the number of low-income renters – 245,000. One of the main reasons for this drop is the demolition of government housing projects such as Cabrini Green. The housing provided by these projects is not being replaced, she said. Instead, the neighborhoods are being gentrified, pushing out low-income renters and wooing young urban professionals with condominiums, designer coffeehouses and health clubs.

At the same time developers are rushing to build high rises and condos, government agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development are pulling funds from programs aimed at low-income renters in favor of supporting programs for home ownership.

“HUD’s focus on home ownership is a great thing, but not everyone is an appropriate candidate for home ownership, especially people living with disabilities like AIDS,” Samame said. “And with this shift in philosophy has come a shift in resources.”

The resources allocated to low-income renters may be even more scarce in the economic aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Samame said.

“It’s too early to tell exactly what will happen, but all services will suffer,” she said. “The president has said not to expect anything, and right now, no one has any money.”

Jackie Estrada, Pat’s caseworker at BEHIV, agreed that growing economic concerns have made it difficult to stay positive about housing options for her 27 clients at the center.

Estrada, a 24-year-old graduate student at National-Louis University in Evanston, said each day she goes to work knowing she is fighting a losing battle to find housing for her clients. She said as improvements in medications have increased the life expectancy of AIDS patients, AIDS has fallen from the public spotlight, losing valuable support as other diseases, such as cancer, gain celebrity spokespeople and corporate fund raising campaigns.

“It’s difficult because people keep telling me, ‘There’s no money. There’s no money,'” Estrada said. “Well, where’s the money? I know there are other important causes, but AIDS isn’t going away.”

Ross Brown, the property manager for Interfaith Housing Development Corporation, an affordable housing development company that has provided BEHIV clients with housing in the past few years, said his company recently closed its affordable housing waiting list.

“(The list) was already up to a couple of years just to get housing,” he said. “There were 60 people waiting for each building and last year only one unit changed owners.”

Not only are waiting lists years-long on the North Shore, but private developers have no plans to build more low-income housing, Brown said.

“The real estate here is too outrageous,” he said. “It’s difficult as a builder and developer when you build 30 units that each go for $200,000 a year. That’s a ballpark figure that makes it difficult to justify building low-income rentals.”

But the problem of finding low-income housing isn’t restricted to Chicago, said Brown, who has been working as a developer and builder for 20 years. He said most metropolitan areas are facing similar problems and suggested the best place for low-income renters to find reasonable housing is in rural areas, far from the medical centers and clinics
upon which most AIDS patients depend.

“Go to the farm country,” he said. “You can get some great deals. Everybody wants the city, the lake, the culture, the proximity, but it’s expensive.”

Evanston Housing Planner Roberta Schur agreed that housing in Evanston is too expensive for most low-income families. Her answer to housing-seekers? Tough luck.

“Is there enough low-income housing in Evanston for all the people who want it? No,” she said. “The need is greater than our supply and I think that is obvious … but the city council allocates where the money needs to go and if they’re not going to require a developer to put in a certain number of units for affordable housing, it’s just not going to happen.”

Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) echoed Schur’s dismal outlook for Evanston’s low-income housing provisions.

“Desire (to build low-income housing), sure it’s there,” he said. “But plans, I don’t think so.”

But for Pat, even future plans by the council may come too late. Sitting in the church, she adjusted her bright pink bifocals and sighed.

“Christ, I’m a 58-year-old woman. I should not be doing this. This is not the American dream.” nyou