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Dying for housing

US: Homelessness is another barrier to those living with HIV / Martin Roemers – Panos Pictures

In the US, homeless HIV positive people die five times faster.

A few hours before the official opening ceremony of the 2008 International AIDS Conference on Sunday, a group of demonstrators loudly demanded “housing for people with AIDS” in a vociferous, but rhythmic chorus.

The activists said the lack of adequate housing was a barrier to effective HIV prevention, treatment and care.

Twenty-one year-old Chakena Conway, is an African American living with AIDS. She lives in a dilapidated house in Brooklyn, New York, paid for by government. “The ceiling tiles are falling down, my cupboards are also falling down; I can’t live like that,” she said.

“You will look at a place and like it, but once landlords hear that they will be paid by HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration), they say no, they won’t rent you the place.”

“Research has shown that HIV-positive homeless persons in the United States die five times faster than HIV-positive people who have housing,” said Charles King, president of US-based advocacy organisation Housing Works.

Yet, the US government remained reluctant to increase its housing budget, saying the expenses involved were too high.

“We have research data showing that, in the long term, the healthcare cost of HIV-positive people who have housing is US$1 million less a year than that of HIV-positive people who were left homeless.”

Although current research is largely US-focused, it is an issue that demands global action, said King. “All governments need to make a plan to include housing in their HIV policies and strategies.”

While housing has long been recognised as a basic human right, US-based research data shows that lack of adequate and secure housing is directly linked to the spread of HIV, poor health outcomes for HIV-positive persons, and early death from AIDS related illnesses.

“Housing is a right, not a privilege, yet HIV-positive people continue to experience a lot of stigma and have less access to housing than HIV-negative persons,” says Shirlene Cooper, director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network.

Cooper, who was homeless for several years, further explains that homeless shelters were inappropriately equipped to support HIV-positive persons, as they did not offer sufficient sanitation and did not have fridges to store medication, for example.

The National AIDS Housing Coalition, Housing Works, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Ontario HIV Treatment Network hosted the world’s first international summit on HIV and homelessness just hours before the start of the 2008 International AIDS Conference.

“The lack of stable housing directly impacts on people’s ability to reduce HIV risk behaviours, and homeless persons are two to six times more likely to use hard drugs, share needles or exchange sex than persons with stable housing,” explains Diana Scholl, spokesperson of New York-based NGO Housing Works. “When people get housing, HIV transmission rates go down, their health improves.”

This article originally appeared in Panoscope – the AIDS 2008 conference newspaper produced by the Panos Global Aids Programme.

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