by Emily Alpert
Before Gregg Braxton moved into Chicago House, he was 'pretty much homeless,' he said. The stress took its toll on Braxton, who is HIV-positive. 'It's very difficult—and research has shown this—to maintain medications when you don't have a place to lay your head.'
Four years after moving into Chicago House, Braxton has earned a bachelor's degree in applied behavior science and now serves as an employment services advocate at Chicago House. He attributes much of his success to living at Chicago House, which gave him 'a sense of normalcy, of dignity and decency,' said Braxton. 'It afforded me an opportunity to do other things.'
For more than 20 years, Chicago House has provided housing and supportive services to HIV-positive residents like Braxton, including psychological counseling, substance abuse treatment and case management. Its innovative Family Support Program, initiated in 1992, includes tutoring and mentoring programs for children affected by HIV/AIDS. At the time of its founding, Chicago House was the first HIV-positive supportive housing in the Midwest.
'There was no government funding then—there wasn't even a president who would say the word 'AIDS,'' said Executive Director Rev. Stan Sloan. Many landlords turned away HIV-positive tenants. 'Because of discrimination, people were denied equal access to apartments, even at full market rate,' he said.
LGBT activists who were directly affected by the epidemic were the first to gather and take action. Among them was Thom Dombkowski, co-founder of Chicago House.
'My college sweetheart was one of the first 100 men diagnosed with AIDS,' said Dombkowski, just weeks before he himself died this year. 'He was vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago, but his benefits package didn't include home healthcare.' In the last months of his boyfriend's life, Dombkowski and his friends took care of him. 'When he died, I put an obituary in the paper and called for a town meeting at a bar downtown.'
A small group of people who had lost friends and lovers to HIV/AIDS began to meet.
'We were a dedicated group of folks with lots of energy, because we were driven with true passion,' said Dombowski. 'The loss we suffered was immense.' Together, they planned a housing program to provide the care their loved ones had needed, and sometimes lacked. In 1985, the group incorporated, sought tax-exempt status, and applied for their first grant from the city of Chicago. Through hundreds of fundraisers, including garage sales, pie tosses and drag shows—'far too many drag shows,' Dombkowski said, laughing—Chicago House earned the funds to open its first residence, Bonaventure House.
The stigma of HIV/AIDS threatened their efforts. 'No one wanted to have the AIDS house in their neighborhood,' said Dombowski. 'We were advised not to publicize it at all.' Even potential residents were wary, Dombkowski noted: 'Nobody wants to be the first to move in.' The house took a few months to fill with residents, and has had a waiting list ever since.
As the impact of HIV/AIDS has changed, so has Chicago House. 'We've followed the disease in every way,' said Sloan. Twenty years ago, Chicago House was primarily a hospice, 'a place where people could transition out of this world to the next with some dignity,' he said. Up until the mid-1990s, when protease inhibitors became available, Chicago House offered hospice care. Today, Chicago House offers a broader range of services and living arrangements, from family housing to independent living, in five different facilities.
'The approach we always took was the Cadillac of Care model,' said Dombkowski. 'Whatever services were necessary, we wanted those to be available.'
Recently, Chicago House received a $1 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand its Fred Woods Home, a 12-family program in Uptown and Edgewater. The new funds will allow for the construction and maintenance of six additional family apartments, beginning early next year.
Another recent addition to Chicago House's programming is a job-training program: the Increased Independence and Income Initiative, aka I-4. Participants take a four-week course in resume-writing, interviewing and other job skills, then consult with a career specialist, who links each participant to job leads.
'The whole idea behind this project is empowerment,' said Braxton. 'We want to work with people who are HIV-positive to get them up to speed, so they can become more independent.'
Among the challenges that remain for Chicago House is the citywide affordable housing crisis, which complicates housing provision for HIV/AIDS service providers. Furthermore, 'the federal landscape at present is not friendly to social services in general and HIV/AIDS in particular,' said Sloan. 'Hopefully, that'll change in four years.'
Still, Sloan remains optimistic. 'While it's true that there's donor apathy nationwide, our core base of donors has been good to us,' he said. 'The gay community, in particular, remains an incredible supporter, and we're grateful for that.'
A memorial for Thom Dombkowski will be held Monday, June 26, 5:30 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Randolph.