No room

Jul 19, 2000 at 12:00 am
Rob Fetzer is the executive director of Wellness House, a Detroit-based housing project and food bank for homeless people with HIV/AIDS. The Metro Times spoke with Fetzer at his office last week. He talked about his work and the struggle to house homeless people with HIV/AIDS and the World AIDS Conference then meeting in South Africa.

Metro Times: Why is AIDS among homeless people in Detroit such a large problem?

Rob Fetzer: There are many factors. One is that the rate of infection in the African-American community has not dropped. New infection continues to happen. We have not done the best we can in terms of public education about HIV and transmission. ... It is just not something people can feel comfortable talking about with their families.

MT: What do you mean?

Fetzer: I’ve been on phone calls listening to African-American men here in Detroit who are depressed. You can almost feel the depression over the phone lines about basically being sentenced to go to a back room in their mother’s house and die. And when they ask for a ride to a support group I’ve heard their own mothers say, "You don’t need to be going there. You need to be on your knees begging Jesus for forgiveness for your sins because you brought this on yourself." I hope there is much less of that going on. … I know that there are several churches that are trying to take a hatchet to it and open it up. Hartford Memorial Baptist Church for years has been doing outstanding work not only through their ministry but people in the church like Dr. Norman Silas who helped found their REACH program, which stands for Reinforcing Education on AIDS and HIV and Cultivating Health Awareness.

MT: How can Detroit churches better address this issue?

Fetzer: They need to do more to acknowledge that there’s a problem, not a moral problem but a health emergency. I would be furious if there was a movement in the next three to six months of African-American churches doing fund raising and donation gathering and garnering food supplies to ship to Africa as a result of the World AIDS Conference. Many HIV-positive African-Americans in Detroit are homeless and without adequate food. ... So if there is going to be a massive relief effort from the churches here in Detroit, it should be directed at the people here in Detroit.

MT: How many homeless people in Detroit are HIV-positive?

Fetzer: Based on the Center for Disease Control’s figures, we estimate that there are about 1,050 people who are homeless who are HIV-positive, may or may not know their status, may or may not be getting care and may or may not be passing it on to others.

Then we have to talk about people with HIV/AIDS who live in Detroit and need secure, sanitary, affordable housing. That is really difficult to estimate. My guess is that it gets into 4,000 to 5,000 who are living in inappropriate housing.

MT: How many beds are available in Detroit for homeless people with HIV/AIDS?

Fetzer: About 18; Wellness House provides 12 of them, not counting emergency shelter beds.

MT: How many residents live at Wellness House?

Fetzer: We have 12. In two houses there are four flats, three people to a flat. Everyone has a private bedroom and shares two bathrooms, a kitchen, parlor and dining room.

MT: Is Wellness House always full?

Fetzer: Always. Always with a waiting list.

MT: How long is the waiting list?

Fetzer: It varies. Usually it has a minimum of three people and sometimes seven or eight, which is really kind of tragic.

MT: I would think that there would be more people on the waiting list. Why are there so few?

Fetzer: There are a couple of reasons. One has to with the fact that there are a lot of people who are HIV-positive but don’t know it and a lot of people who feel the housing they have is adequate though I see it as horribly inappropriate. Some criticize us for not doing more outreach, but to me it would be cruel to go out and invite people to get on our waiting list. There are also people who are homeless who want to remain homeless.

MT: How do you decide who will live at Wellness House?

Fetzer: If we’ve got eight people waiting for that one bed to become available, it is very painful to do. But we have to look at each of the applicants and interview them and be realistic about where they are at in the HIV disease progression. ... So we look at the severity of need and the intensity of services that person will have. We just have to look for that person we believe needs what we have to offer.

MT: Are those decisions hard to make?

Fetzer: Yep. But it would be much harder not to be making them at all. And that is a much bigger concern because we know that the number of available beds for people in Detroit in the past five to 10 years has not grown — it has actually decreased. We lost Patterson House, and I think they had up to 15 beds. Harmon House is gone. They also were in a situation where out of necessity they were putting two to three people into a bedroom and we’ve never done that, and we aren’t going to go to bunk beds today.

MT: How many people with HIV/AIDS use your food bank?

Fetzer: Today we have 400 people who take a box a month of food that provides 38 meals, and it is not enough. It is not enough. We are living in John Engler’s Michigan. Every quarter we randomly survey about 10 percent of the people receiving food and we ask them about their food stamps. They say the maximum is two weeks that the food stamps will last and in many cases it’s one week.

MT: What about public funding? Is more money available for places like Wellness House?

Fetzer: There have been increases in federal funding every year for this epidemic. ... Has that increase in cash been proportionate to the increase in need? That’s dubious. No one looks at the fact that the pie is being cut up in more pieces in the last seven to eight years. As more cases come up in rural areas in the heartland of America, more money is being siphoned away from urban areas. Our funding has been flat at Wellness House for years.

MT: How much does it cost to run Wellness House?

Fetzer: Our annual budget is just over a half-million dollars. In the past fiscal year our spending has been just over $300,000 because we haven’t had the revenue to work with. ... And if we would not have had one bequest and one extremely generous donor, we would not be here.

MT: When would you have closed if it were not for those two donations?

Fetzer: Nine months ago.

MT: What do you think would have happened if Wellness House closed?

Fetzer: Some people will die faster and there would be a lot more hungry people who would get sick faster. Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected]