Legal group sees 30 years of HIV changes

by Seth Hemmelgarn
Wednesday Apr 24, 2013

A San Francisco nonprofit that helps people living with HIV and AIDS with their legal needs has seen a lot of change since it started in 1983, when the AIDS epidemic was still new and death was often imminent for those infected.

Bill Hirsh, 51, who started at AIDS Legal Referral Panel in the late 1980s as a volunteer fresh out of law school, estimated that 80 percent of the nonprofit's work once involved preparing simple wills. Now, he said, that number is probably about 10 percent.

"Because our clients are living longer, the issues they bring to us are more related to living with HIV than dying of AIDS," Hirsh said of the agency, which provides free or low-cost services to people in the Bay Area.

Over the years, ALRP has helped thousands of people keep their homes, stay in their jobs, address debt, and secure legal status in the United States, among other services, he said.

"Housing is now far and away the single biggest legal issue for our clients," Hirsh said.

The agency now handles more than 600 housing cases a year that include evictions, discrimination and habitability issues, and rent increases.

"The folks who are least able to deal with the system are the folks who are forced to deal with it the most," Hirsh said. "When you're sick and you get that eviction notice in the mail sometimes it's overwhelming ... if you don't have access to a good attorney, you could lose your home."

Like many nonprofits, the agency, which handles about 1,500 unduplicated clients annually, faces funding challenges of its own as demand for services rises. Aging and finances can be critical issues for the people with whom ALRP works.

About 80 percent of the people the agency works with are LGBT, and "increasingly, our clients are getting older, but we serve folks under 30 as well," Hirsh said.

One man, who asked that his name not be published, said ALRP helped him get $200,000 in student loans discharged. The 43-year-old San Francisco resident said he has HIV and bipolar II and is unable to work.

"I'm in a much better place than I was before," he said, adding that the nonprofit is "a great resource," and he didn't think he would have been able to get the help he needed without it.

ALRP has 11 paid staff, including attorneys and other employees, as well as many volunteers. Additionally, there are usually at least five law clerks. Sometimes the agency has money to pay for those positions, and sometimes the clerks work as volunteers. The nonprofit has a panel of over 700 attorneys who volunteer their time.

Looking ahead

"There has been an increase in demand for our services for a number of years running, and we don't see an end in sight," Hirsh said.

San Francisco has a lack of affordable housing, and people are living longer and dealing with cancer and other health problems that may go with that. Half of the people in the city living with HIV are now 50 or older.

"Many people with HIV, they never figured they were going to be making it to retirement, so there are no savings, there is no plan," Hirsh said. "There is no cushion for them to fall back on."

ALRP, which has a budget of just over $1 million, does have reserves to help it face financial challenges, but like many other nonprofits, it's facing the possibility of cuts in funding from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Modernization Act.

Hirsh said the nonprofit's been able to keep up with demand, but "it's an ongoing challenge." Last year, ALRP recruited more than 80 new attorneys to its panel, said Hirsh, who's "constantly inspired" by people involved with the agency.

The agency appears to be financially stable, too.

"Right now we have enough of a reserve so that we would be able to continue services at their current level through this fiscal year," Hirsh said.

The agency recently kicked off its 30th anniversary fundraising campaign, from which it hopes to raise $300,000. Hirsh estimated almost half of that has been raised so far.

ALRP board Co-Chair Michelle Roberts, an attorney with Springer-Sullivan and Roberts LLP, said the help is crucial.

With the 30th anniversary, the agency is "really trying to get the community a lot more involved," Roberts, 31, said. That includes help from private law firms and financial contributions from the community.

For those who can't provide money, "give your time," she said.

Hirsh reiterated the importance of the work of his and other nonprofits.

"If all it took to deal with AIDS was a simple pill, we would have been successful in fighting this epidemic years ago," he said. But besides medication, people also need help with housing, food, and other things "so they can stabilize their lives and get into care and stay in care," he said.

ALRP will continue its 30 Years of Justice from the Heart campaign with a major donor reception, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 9 at the Plant Cafe, Pier 3, San Francisco. The suggested minimum donation is $300. The nonprofit's annual reception and auction is planned for October 16.

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