Helping AIDS patients pay the rent

March 26, 1995|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Before Howard County created a rental assistance program for people with AIDS, the Ellicott City woman would pay her $519 rent each month by begging for money from family members, churches and nonprofit organizations.

Now, the 28-year-old former hairdresser, who doesn't want her name used because her neighbors do not know she is infected, gets financial help from a federal program called Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS.

"It really is a good program," said the woman, whose health problems forced her to leave her job in August. With help in paying the rent, she can better care for the child she's raising, she said. "My goal is to pay my bills on time and be a good mom," she said.

Howard County's $30,850 program -- which got under way last month -- is intended to help four AIDS sufferers with low-income housing and emergency rent assistance this year. It has two clients now. The program is funded through a $186 million federal grant that helps 50,000 people nationally, including 240 in Maryland.

There is a growing need for such assistance, local social service providers say.

Since acquired immune deficiency syndrome was first reported in Howard County in 1981, there have been 126 patients in the county. Of them, 75 have died. Since January, 12 new cases have been reported.

The federal housing program helps those with AIDS live longer because they can concentrate on their health rather than on paying the rent, said Leslie Leitch of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, which distributes the federal funds.

Without such assistance, some AIDS patients drift among the homes of friends and relatives, social service providers say. Locally, some would be forced to move out of Howard County -- where one-bedroom apartments start at more than $500 a month -- to find cheaper housing.

And in extreme cases, some AIDS patients can become homeless, having to live in shelters where they can be exposed to contagious diseases such as tuberculosis.

"If you don't have a place to live, how can you be healthy?" asked Lenwood Green, a Columbia resident and coordinator of AIDS Alliance's minority outreach program. "To be concerned about where you're going to be living on a routine basis can bring on illness."

Although some AIDS patients qualify for housing subsidies, such as the federal Section 8 program, they can die while waiting for subsidies to become available -- the wait can be up to five years in Howard County.

This January, for example, a 31-year-old Howard County man died after waiting more than three years for a housing subsidy, county health officials said.

"There are such long waiting lists, if you have HIV and it's going to progress to AIDS, you may not have time to wait three years," said Mary Mazzuca, HIV coordinator for the county health department and president of AIDS Alliance.

Like those assisted under Section 8, those in the AIDS housing program must put 30 percent of their income toward rent and must meet strict financial guidelines.

The help is provided in a way that preserves the recipients' anonymity.

"We've worked very hard to make [the program confidential] so even landlords don't know" where the money originates, said Fay Sundry, who oversees the county's AIDS housing program.

For those who qualify, the program can be a life-saver. The Ellicott City woman who is raising a child said that without it, she eventually would have been forced to move in with her family or find a roommate to share the apartment.

She considers the program an opportunity to get back on her feet.

"God has given me one year to get my stuff together," she said, adding that she tries to save about $50 a month from her monthly $700 Social Security disability check. "Financially, I hope I can pay the rent myself."

For more information, call Fay Sundry, county Healt Department, 313-2333.

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