The HIV tenants nobody wants

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The Independent Online
THE NEAT maisonnettes and manicured gardens exude comfortable suburbia. Yet in John Beake's home there is a smell of damp, the door is boarded up as a result of several burglaries, and despite the spring sunshine Mr Beake, 33, sits shivering in his sitting-room.

Dog excrement, burning rags and abusive letters have all been put through the letter-box of his ground-floor council maisonette, and local children regularly shout abuse and throw cans at him. He is still recovering from an attack by a woman at a telephone box.

Violent antipathy is the last thing Mr Beake needs. He has been HIV positive for 12 years and has been told by doctors to avoid stress. He is convinced that the combined stress of harassment and poor living conditions have been major contributory factors in the decline of his T-cell count (indicators of the efficiency of his body's immune system) which has fallen from 300 to 120 in the past year, making him vulnerable to all infections.

Mr Beake's predicament is typical of an increasing number of people being dealt with by the Terrence Higgins Trust. The agency has seen a 68 per cent increase in its housing caseload in the past year. More than half are clients who are homeless. The trust says some people with Aids and HIV are being forced out of their homes and the condition of others is deteriorating because they live in poor accommodation.

'We are seeing more and more people being forced out of their homes by private landlords or families and partners who throw them out once their HIV status is known,' said the housing section manager, Jackie Bates. 'Many are unable to pay rent or mortgages once they are too ill to work, others are forced to leave accommodation which is no longer suitable as their health deteriorates.'

The trust has also noted a rise in physical and verbal abuse, and a recent survey in Newham revealed that 79 per cent of people with HIV were exposed to harassment from neighbours or landlords.

'If you house a young single man in a council estate he sticks out like a sore thumb,' said Ms Bates. She cited the case of Jacob, a frail young man able to walk only with the aid of a stick. He was continually harassed by neighbours but was not moved off his Hackney estate until after an attack which resulted in 20 stitches to his arm.

According to the trust, and other Aids agencies and housing associations, the plight of sufferers could be exacerbated by government proposals to change local authorities' statutory obligations towards housing unintentionally homeless people, the sick, and people subjected to harassment and violence on the grounds of their race, sexuality or HIV status. Local authorities will only be bound to find accommodation for a limited period.

'We might well see a situation of 'revolving homelessness' where ill people are given temporary accommodation which may well be detrimental to their health, only to have that protection removed after a few months and then go back to the beginning of the homelessness process,' said Ms Bates.

According to Tom Howarth, who works for the country's only specialist housing association for those with Aids and HIV, housing is becoming an increasingly difficult issue for such people.

'There are special needs for people unwell with HIV and Aids,' he said. 'They need to be near their medical facilities and taken away from inadequate housing that worsens their health. That is going to be increasingly difficult to do as special needs funding from the Housing Corporation (which funds housing associations) is cut, availability of public housing decreases and the HIV population grows.

'There will be a lot of scrabbling around for what will be crumbs. The time has long gone when local authorities housed you on the grounds that you were HIV.'

Mr Howarth, like other HIV and Aids housing workers, is loath to foresee a time when HIV and Aids sufferers will share the same predicament as the mentally ill, slipping through the community-care network and being pushed inappropriately into the private rented sector or on to the streets; but the underlying worry is there.

'Hopefully we won't see people dying in the streets, but there's going to be a lot of HIV and Aids sufferers with an appalling quality of life,' said Peter Molyneux, director of the Aids and Housing Project, which advises and supports housing associations and local-authority housing departments. Cases such as Mr Beake's, he said, highlighted the inadequacies of both the social services and housing departments.

'The biggest single thing we think can be done to improve the quality of life for HIV people would be to include housing in needs assessments for community care, creating an operational link between housing and social services.

Mr Beake, meanwhile, has no alternative but to wait for better housing. He first approached housing department in Hounslow, west London, for a transfer to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea a year ago. He was increasingly unable to cope with the hour-long journey to the Kobler Centre in Chelsea which he visits three times a week for treatment. Since then his condition has deteriorated further; he suffers from chronic and often uncontrollable diarrhoea, and several skin conditions. As a result he needs to bathe at least three times a day but is afraid to risk pneumonia in the cold bathroom with its broken radiator.

When he can he bathes at a friend's house in central London. For heating he relies on expensive-to-run electric heaters. His friends who are willing to care for him also live in the Kensington and Chelsea.

Hounslow council says that, while he is top of its transfer list, his move is dependent on suitable accommodation in that borough.

But in Kensington and Chelsea, which has the highest number of HIV and Aids residents in the country - last year there were 800 Aids and HIV sufferers experiencing severe illness living within its boundaries - there is a huge backlog of demand for housing. Its housing department predicts that Mr Beake will have to wait between three and six months for a council home. Most of the Aids and HIV sufferers living in the borough have moved there to be near its medical services and support networks.

'I don't have time on my side,' said Mr Beake. 'The system is against people like myself. You haven't got time to follow all the rules and procedures, and housing has such an effect on your life, especially when you know you are going to die. I can't get well if the flat is damp and the kitchen has dry rot. It's difficult to keep clean and any one of those microbes could kill me.'

Mr Beake has now asked Hounslow council for minor improvements to his maisonette. A council spokeswoman said it would contact Mr Beake 'to have a look'.

(Photograph omitted)

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