Bush's Budget Boosts AIDS Housing Program

President Bush's budget plan for 2007 largely calls for reductions in spending on programs that offer help for the poor. But not every program that serves lower-income Americans would lose. Bush is asking for a funding boost for a program that provides housing for women with HIV and AIDS.

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President Bush's budget plan scales back programs targeted for the poor in education, housing, and food. But not every program that serves lower income Americans would lose; at least not this year.

NPR's Libby Lewis went to Delaware to visit one winner and one loser under the President's blueprint. The winner would be a home for women with HIV and AIDS. A loser would be Upward Bound, the program for low-income youth who want to go to college.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

At eye-level, Michele Southerland looks all business. Her hair's done up in braids, her sharp suit is cream and navy. But what's up with those purple socks?

Ms. MICHELE SOUTHERLAND (Beneficiary): (Laughs) That's it, I got these socks on, these goes on underneath my boots so nobody will see that part.

LEWIS: Southerland has her boots off because she's at home. She lives in a house with ten apartments for women with HIV in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Economic prosperity circles this whole industrial city on the banks of the Brandywine River. It comes from banking, pharmaceuticals, and the DuPonts.

But here in the center, in zip code 19801, it can be as easy to find heroin as a bank. Michele Southerland got the virus that causes AIDS from an old boyfriend, years ago. She says he knew he was infected, but he didn't tell her. He did help her get crack cocaine.

When she got a space in this house several years ago, she was so skinny and sick she wore sweaters in August.

Ms. SOUTHERLAND: And I would go outside and people would stare at me, so I got to the point that I didn't even want to come outside anymore.

LEWIS: Wilmington, Delaware is a place most people pass through on the I-95 Corridor.

Ms. KIRSTEN OLSON: We're typically in the top five states for our per capita AIDS rate, which is surprising to people because people don't really think about Delaware. I mean, why would you?

LEWIS: Kirsten Olson works for Connections, the non-profit agency that runs the house where Michele Southerland has gotten her act together. President Bush wants to put more money into the Federal Housing Program that provides most of the funds for the Wilmington house and others around the country. He would increase funding slightly to 300 million dollars; enough to house 75,000 people. That's 3,500 more than last year.

It's not charity. AIDS housing advocates point to research that shows a link between homelessness on one hand, and drug use and the spread of HIV on the other. Wilmington's program is small. The ten women who are fortunate enough to be here also get a safety net of services like health care and drug counseling, and they can stay forever if they want.

Michele Southerland is about to move out to be on her own. She's a degree and she's looking for a job as a nursing assistant. For now, she works as a receptionist a few blocks away from the house. Her boots are on, and she's headed there now. She meets a friend on the street.

Ms. SOUTHERLAND: Hello!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How are you?

Ms. SOUTHERLAND: I've got my apartment (unintelligible)...

LEWIS: One reason the President wants to fund the AIDS housing program is that the Office of Management and Budget has rated it effective. OMB gives programs a score after looking at factors like how they're designed and managed. Government evaluators say they don't think another program, Upward Bound, is effective enough.

Upward Bound helps disadvantaged high schoolers sharpen their academic skills to get them into college. It does that with tutoring, college prep, and residential summer programs. Upward Bound staff say what they do is tough to measure by just numbers.

Gary Bass thinks the President's choices reflect political priorities more than a true measure of performance. He's with a government watchdog group called OMB Watch.

Mr. GARY BASS (Founder and Executive Director, OMB Watch): And in the case of things like AIDS housing, there is more political support for that today. In the case of programs that serve disadvantaged kids? There's less support today.

LEWIS: At the University of Delaware's Upward Bound Program in Newark, eight high school students huddle around a table in a study session. Andrew Cho(ph), a tutor for Upward Bound, is helping junior Lisa Smith with her trigonometry.

Mr. ANDREW CHO (Tutor): ...you know, if you raise anything to zero power, it equals one.

LEWIS: Across the table, Ahmed Irabhim(ph) is balancing chemistry equations. Ibrahim is sixteen. Frankly, he looks like he doesn't need to be here. He's moving through those equations the way another kid might play a video game.

But tell him that; that he doesn't look like he needs to be here, and he begs to differ. Ibrahim lives with his family in Wilmington.

Mr. AHMED IRABHIM (Upward Bound student): Because, I mean, like, you know, from where I'm from, it's like, I come from an area where there's lots of drugs, lots of gangs and stuff. And for me to step out and say, you know, I'm an A student, I'm doing this-that in school, you know, they look at me kind of funny, like what's he doing? You know, that's not normal.

LEWIS: Here it is normal. But the value of that is hard to measure.

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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