Helping Hands: HIV/AIDs sufferers extra vulnerable during housing crunch

Helping Hands

Editor's Note: This is the third in a five-part series on the state of nonprofit organizations and how they navigate a city that is experiencing a historic economic boom, housing crisis and widening income gap.

Sunday: The Arc

Monday: Independent Living Resource Center

Today: AIDs Legal Referral Panel

Wednesday: Real Options for City Kids

Sunday: Compass Family Services

Maintaining stable housing in present-day San Francisco is difficult enough as a completely healthy adult. Add the debilitating anxiety of an HIV/AIDs diagnosis to that scenario, and it might seem impossible, especially after you've been served with a three-day notice to vacate.

A San Francisco nonprofit called the AIDs Legal Referral Panel had its beginnings as a small group of lawyers writing emergency wills for droves of people dying of the disease 30 years ago. But with HIV/AIDs sufferers now living much longer, the organization has changed its focus to the new needs of its clients — namely, maintaining a life in the nation's most expensive rental market.

Michael Gallin, a 49-year-old diagnosed with the disease in 2007, said he was attempting to return to a job after a long period of claiming disability benefits, when his apartment situation near Dolores Park suddenly became tenuous.

Earlier this year, Gallin and his partner Aaron Marxmiller had been complaining to the landlord about basic problems like heating units and broken windows, so much so that The City's Rent Board mandated that his monthly payment be lowered due to unacceptable conditions. Shortly after that, a three-day notice to vacate was slipped under the door.

“We didn't know where we would go,” Gallin said. “We could be couch surfing, or worse.”

ALRP Attorney Kim Shindel took the rare step of fighting the eviction before a judge — as almost every other housing issue ALRP encounters is settled out of court — and eventually got a ruling that Gallin's habitability issues forbade the landlord from collecting rent.

Shindel said cases like Gallin's are increasingly common as The City's current housing crisis worsens, but she added that a renter having HIV/AIDs as the sole motive for the evictions is rarely apparent.

“I think in a lot of cases, it's definitely a point that the landlord considers, but it's nearly impossible to prove,” Shindel said.

Bill Hirsh, the nonprofit's executive director, said even though discrimination associated with the disease is far less than it was 30 years ago, individuals with HIV/AIDs are especially vulnerable during the current housing crunch. ALRP now deals with housing issues as the largest single part of its mission, up to one-third of all cases, Hirsh said.

“I have never — ever — seen the pressure landlords are now under to evict tenants,” Hirsh said. “I could have a small army of attorneys, and not even come close to addressing the current housing issues for clients.”

Partly because people are living so much longer with the disease, Hirsh said ALRP's caseload has experienced a 50-percent increase in the past decade. But living longer also means maintaining access to expensive drugs, he added.

“More people are living with HIV/AIDs and more people are impoverished by HIV/AIDs,” Hirsh said. “For many of them, they didn't envision a time where they would be living as a senior.”

Still, Hirsh said The City's economic boom has also come with more private donations, even as public funding remains stagnant and costs increase. He believes that if the current good times come to an end, that city coffers should cover the rest of the need.

“Nonprofits have historically provided an array of services that The City is incapable of really giving, either because they can't do it well, or with the same level of cultural competence,” Hirsh said. “I think there's a great capacity for compassion in this city … and there should be a government commitment to make sure these services continue.”