Within the second floor of an office building in Brookhaven’s Executive Park is the brains behind the operations of Atlanta’s oldest and largest provider of permanent housing for homeless and low-income individuals and families affected by HIV and AIDS.
Jerusalem House is celebrating its 30th anniversary. For the past 12 years, it has been headquartered at 17 Executive Park Drive. It’s here where all the administrative functions occur, budgets are made, fundraisers are planned, website and social media accounts are overseen, and facilities management is conducted. But it’s out in the community, in other parts of metro Atlanta, where Jerusalem House and its staff do the housing work.
Frew said having a roof over the head of person with HIV or AIDS is crucial to stopping new HIV infections from spreading in metro Atlanta, where they continue to rise despite advances in education and treatment.
“Our mantra is, ‘Housing is health care,’” Frew said. “If we can get the housing issue and resolve it in [metro] Atlanta, the byproduct will be improved health outcomes and fewer infection rates.”
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS and has killed millions of people worldwide. The virus is spread through certain bodily fluids, such as through sex or sharing needles to use drugs. There is no cure.
Once considered a death sentence, HIV is now a manageable disease with new medicines that have enabled people to live long, healthier lives. Medications can lower the amount of the virus in the bloodstream to undetectable levels. When HIV is undetectable, it is nearly impossible to sexually transmit the disease, thereby lowering the number of new infections.
AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection when the body’s immune system is severely damaged. When HIV is left untreated, a person with AIDS can live about three years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the progress in new medicines that suppress the virus and education campaigns on how the disease is spread, Georgia continues to remain one of the states with the highest new infection rates in the country. In 2018, there were nearly 39,000 new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., according to the CDC. Georgia ranked fourth of all states with nearly 2,600 new HIV diagnoses.
In 2017, there were nearly 17,000 people living with HIV in Fulton County and nearly 10,000 HIV-positive people living in DeKalb County, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Most of those receiving new HIV diagnoses are disenfranchised and marginalized people, including gay and bisexual men, people of color, homeless people and single mothers with young children, Frew said. “You can give all the medical help in the world to someone, but unless they are housed, they’re not going to be able to be compliant with their medications,” Frew said.
Jerusalem House was founded 30 years ago after Evelyn Ullman, an affluent Atlanta woman, learned one of her employees, a gay man, was evicted because he had AIDS. Outraged by the discrimination, she teamed up with Dr. Joe Wilber, who headed up the state’s infectious disease program, and Rev. Chet Grey of St. Bartholomew’s Church to find a way to help.
She knocked on doors of major companies and organizations, including Southern Bell, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and the Woodruff Foundation, to raise the money needed to buy the first house.
Today, the nondenominational Jerusalem House, whose name means “dwelling of peace,” has 405 housing units and about 620 residents, including 125 children. All are low-income or were homeless. Many are too ill to work because of the disease. Many children are HIV-positive.
There are two Jerusalem House facilities for individuals in the Druid Hills neighborhood, including the original house purchased and opened in 1989, and dozens of apartments that have been attached to its campus. A family program with 12 apartments near Emory University is currently filled.
There are also two “scattered site” programs where Jerusalem House clients live in hundreds of apartments across metro Atlanta. Jerusalem House also offers tenant-based rental assistance that helps pay a portion of a participant’s monthly rent.
Other agencies provide about another 100 or so housing units for those with HIV and AIDS in metro Atlanta, Frew said, bringing the total housing units for low-income and homeless people with HIV and AIDS to fewer than 600. A recent study estimated 3,000 permanent supportive housing units are needed in metro Atlanta to house low-income and homeless people with HIV and AIDS, Frew said.
The organization is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and must pay fair market rents. The city of Atlanta distributes the federal funds to local AIDS service organizations, but recent controversies over agencies not getting their money in a timely manner led to potential evictions of people living with HIV. Jerusalem House and other agencies like AID Atlanta and Positive Impact were able to ensure nobody ended up back on the street, Frew said.
As rents continue to rise in metro Atlanta, the scattered sites are being forced further out from the city, making it harder for people to get into Atlanta, where medical resources are available. Jerusalem House can’t afford the rents in its home city of Brookhaven, for example. Jerusalem House receives no state or local funding and relies on donations to cover gaps not filled by federal funding. The organization’s 2020 operating budget is $10.4 million.
Jerusalem House provides 76% of the permanent housing for men, women and children living with HIV and AIDS, said Matthew Kent, a Brookhaven resident and chair of the Jerusalem House board of directors.
The organization’s mission has always been the same, but it has evolved, he said.
“In the beginning, it was a peaceful place for people with the disease to come to die,” he said. “Now it is a place where people are living and thriving.”
Jerusalem House works with other agencies to provide clients mental health counseling, financial training, GED courses, recreational activities and volunteer activities as part of a holistic approach to helping people out of despair, Frew said.
The stigma against people with HIV and AIDS that led to the eviction of Ullman’s employee 30 years ago still exists, Frew said. As a gay man who saw many friends die in the 1980s and 1990s, Frew said Jerusalem House is also about removing stigma by empowering people.
“We want to make a person the best they can be,” he said. “Nobody should be considered less than a human being. We are here to create a stable environment for people.”
Bertha Dave, 70, has been HIV-positive for nearly 20 years. She is the guardian of her teen granddaughter. After staying on couches for a time, she now resides at an apartment in the family program house.
“They help you with your children to grow,” Dave said. “This is a community. Here I am able to be stable.”
Dave’s experience has led her to give back by volunteering and working at local AIDS service agencies. People at her church know she is HIV positive and she said she lets everyone know because she believes the more aware people are, the quicker a cure can be found.
“I’m not afraid to tell anyone. How can there be a cure if nobody knows about it?” she asked. “The stigma ends with me.”
30th anniversary fundraiser
On March 26, Jerusalem House celebrates its 30th anniversary with a luncheon at the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel, 3315 Peachtree Road. Honorees include Evelyn Ullman and the Buckhead/Cascade City chapter of The Links, an international nonprofit made up of women of color dedicated to serving their communities. Tickets are $100. Visit jerusalemhouse.org for more information.