'Without housing, how can I take my medications? How can I keep my kids?'
For many, the need for shelter can turn dire

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

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, nauseated 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 J'Mia 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?"

For weeks, she had tried to keep her fears from Ja'Waun, who was in second grade at a nearby Catholic school and talked about becoming an artist. But he knew. And he worried.

His drawing book in his pocket, Ja'Waun said, "I don't want my mom to get sicker."

Edwards, 28, learned she had HIV four years ago. She said she contracted the virus from an old boyfriend. The disease has since progressed to full-blown AIDS.

In 2007, while waiting for a housing voucher, she was placed in an apartment building run by the nonprofit Northwest Church Family Network. She moved in with Ja'Waun, a younger son and her infant daughter.

She hung green curtains on grimy windows and dressed the beds in Spider-Man sheets. She bought fans and plastic bins to store toys and medical records.

Edwards enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia, taking social work classes with plans to become a case manager for people with AIDS. She has struggled with bouts of dizziness, nausea and mood swings, at one point dropping 15 pounds over two months, but has fought her way back to health.

Then, in late 2008, Edwards learned that the city had cut off funding for the church network. Executive Director Jerry Coleman said the organization was told there wasn't enough money. Coleman said he has been trying to help about half a dozen families find other places to live, and the group has fixed up its building in Northwest.

The HIV/AIDS Administration said the church network did not compete successfully for a new grant.

By June, desperate for help, Edwards was calling housing advocates and AIDS case managers.

In August, one month before the deadline, she received the call she had been waiting for.

She got the housing voucher. She quickly started searching for a clean, safe apartment building, calling dozens of landlords. In September, she found a rental house in Southeast. There were no mice, and her children would have their own bedrooms.

Edwards, who recently landed a job as an outreach worker with a local AIDS nonprofit group, said she will continue to speak out.

"People shouldn't have to be on the streets," she said. "Everybody deserves a place to live."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company