Catherine Sullivan is executive director of Grace House, an organization that serves at-risk individuals in Central Mississippi. Sullivan is a graduate of Princeton University and the Tulane University School of Law. Prior to joining Grace House, Sullivan was a paralegal investigator with the forensics unit at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about Grace House and its efforts to serve the community.
What is Grace House?
“It is the organization in Central Mississippi that provides housing assistance, supportive services and case management to the most vulnerable members of our community, some of whom are homeless or chronically homeless, and all of whom are living with one or more disabling conditions. Our primary focus is on those impoverished Central Mississippians living with HIV, alcohol abuse or drug addiction.”
What are some of the programs Grace House offers?
“We offer three main programs and a host of supportive services. The three main programs are what is known as the HUD HOPWA program, which stands for Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (These days, that really means people living with HIV), a HUD program called ‘the Continuum of Care,’ which provides housing for people who are chronically homeless (Our Continuum of Care focuses on women in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse and on men, women and families who have a family member with HIV), and the third program is our food pantry.”
How many people do you serve on an annual basis?
“We serve at or more than 500 people a year, which is a huge jump in numbers from two years ago. Two years ago, we were serving about 230 people a year.”
Why the increase?
“We partnered with the city and the state, the city through the Department of Planning and Development, and the state through the Mississippi Home Corporation, to provide HOPWA housing, case management and supportive services to an additional number of people.”
Where do you have housing for individuals?
“We have housing in seven counties. It’s not that we have the housing, but our clients choose where they would like to live, whether it’s an apartment or a single-family dwelling. As long as we inspect it and it meets HUD habitability requirements and fair market rent for the area, our clients can live where they want. We help them with rent either by supplementing an amount the client pays or, in the cases of people who have bad credit/no credit, criminal convictions, or problems with landlords in the past, Grace House enters into leasing agreements (on their behalf.)”
It seems like there is a lot less stigma today associated with AIDS and HIV. Is it hard to find housing for clients?
“The fact that our clients are HIV positive is not a piece of personal information that landlords can ask about. That would be like asking if you have diabetes. HIV and diabetes are chronic conditions, and at this point, are manageable with treatment. If someone with HIV is medication-compliant, their viral load is undetectable and they cannot pass the virus.
“I want to address the first part of your question. We live in the South and deep in the Bible Belt. Reducing the stigma with this ongoing condition is an ongoing battle. That is part of what necessitates organizations like Grace House. There are other factors that unfortunately mean Grace House will have clients for the foreseeable future. Jackson is ranked very high among metro areas nationwide on the number of new HIV diagnoses annually. The overwhelming majority are in the African American community. In Mississippi, as in other Southern states, probably the most significant factor contributing to (this trend) is poverty and a history of poverty and marginalization that is centuries old.”
Going back to the stigma question, what can Grace House do to fight the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS?
“A way we address the stigma is through advocacy and empowering our clients to address the stigma in their daily lives. We also support those organizations in the African American community, both by word and deed, in the work they do in peer training and improving access to (health) care. One of the shining examples is My Brothers Keeper, which addresses many inequities in the African American community.”
How many people are diagnosed with HIV each year in the metro area?
“There were 478 in 2018; it hovers around 450.”
Is there anything Grace House can do to help reduce those numbers?
“We actually believe that housing is healthcare. As long as we are working with our clients, the goal is that everyone would stay on their anti-retroviral regimens, their viral loads become undetectable, and therefore the chances of (transmitting) the virus are almost zero.”
How is Grace House funded?
“Almost exclusively through HUD and are indebted to the those in the local community who add to that amount.”
Has the state’s cuts in mental health affected Grace House?
“Off the top of my head, I don’t believe those cuts have affected our work, as it applies to clients coming to us for the first time. By and large, those clients have been out of care (for some time) or have never been in adequate care. We certainly use Mississippi Department of Mental Health resources or guide our clients to the department for resources or counseling.”
How many employees do you have?
“Twenty-two. Nine are case managers, all of whom have social work degrees. Three of those have the education required to serve as counselors. In the administration area, there are three of us – a bookkeeper, an administrative assistant and myself. Three (staffers) are drivers, because we provide transportation 20 hours a day to doctor’s appointments, training, job interviews … We have three people who work overnight shifts so someone is always here.”
Does Grace House provide group housing as well?
“We call it shared housing. We own five houses that are shared housing. It’s all independent living; it’s all voluntary. The folks who are here overnight are here more to answer any emergency calls and to provide security for our clients who live on campus.”
How many people stay in shared housing?
“We have space for 22; we are not always full but we serve in those five homes more than 22 people a year.”
What percentage of those clients go on to live independently?
“About 20 percent annually graduate to independent living; 70 percent stay with us for another period of time; 10 percent leave annually either because they’re drawn back to a different lifestyle. Some die; some end up in prison or in mental institutions.”
What is the typical amount of time a person remains under Grace House’s care?
“It depends on which program fits them best. Determining, which program fits them best has to do with that list of vulnerabilities, including whether or not the client has earned income or benefits income, and how many issues they are faced with. The transitional program (shared housing) that I told you about, a person can stay up to two years. Some need less than that; some need more than that. If they need more, they are moved to a permanent housing program.”
What are Grace House’s needs right now?
“This time of the year, they are things that keep people warm: scarves, hats, gloves, coats, blankets. And volunteering is very easy. We always have things that we need volunteers for. Call (601) 353-1038 and say you’d like to volunteer.”