Legal group sees 30 years of HIV changes
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One man, who asked that his name not be published, said ALRP helped him get $200,000 in student loans discharged.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.
"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.