Wasting Away: The Squandering of D.C.'s AIDS Dollars

D.C. AIDS Patients Left in the Lurch for Shelter

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009; 6:49 PM

When mice crawled into his sister's crib or his mother started heaving on the worn stairwell to their fourth-floor apartment, 9-year-old Ja'Waun Edwards would reach for his drawing book.

In the tiny spiral notebook, he had sketched his favorite things: helicopters and a picture of his father, Redskins players and SpongeBob SquarePants. He also drew a stick figure of a boy, grinning.

"That's just me," he said, "when I'm happy."

In his heat-choked bedroom in Northwest Washington in June, happiness was fleeting.

Ja'Waun was living with a mother with AIDS. He had spent long nights listening to her toss in bed, nauseous and dizzy. He'd bring her water, then settle in beside her and beg her not to cry. In the morning before school, he'd leave out her medicine for AIDS and asthma, conditions made worse by the long flight of stairs in a building with no elevator.

In June, the family was facing a new problem.

The church program that owned the apartment they had been staying in for 18 months had lost funding from the D.C. Health Department's HIV/AIDS Administration, leaving Edwards and her three children with no place to live.

She was among hundreds of sick people searching for support and housing in a city with the nation's highest AIDS rate.

The needs are staggering. AIDS advocates say counseling, case management and support services are in short supply. The need for housing is particularly acute. The city offers vouchers for people with AIDS to help offset rent on the private market, but nearly 440 people are waiting, up from 107 in 2004.

Edwards applied for a voucher with the HIV/AIDS Administration in 2007.

Two years later, she was still waiting to hear back, with just three months left to move out of her apartment. She spoke about her plight at rallies and town hall meetings, becoming a public face of AIDS in the District.

"Without housing, how can I take my medications?" Edwards asked. "Without housing, how can I keep my kids?"

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