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Shelter's closing leaves AIDS patients homeless

An Orlando shelter that housed 70 homeless AIDS victims has closed because of a funding crunch, leaving many of its ill former residents out on the street.

Centaur, an Orlando AIDS support group, had run the 14-apartment shelter since 1990, but a change in state guidelines dried up funding last month, forcing the shelter to close Oct. 1.

"We put ourselves in the hole to operate it," said Debbie Tucci, director of Centaur.

Nearly half of all Americans with AIDS are homeless or on the verge of it, according to a federal study released in July. The study by the National Commission on AIDS also found that at least 15 percent of homeless people are infected with the AIDS virus.

Those were the people Centaur was trying to help with the temporary housing program, Tucci said.

During Florida's financial crisis, the state changed its funding guidelines, which meant Centaur could use the public money for only one month's rent.

Most homeless people with AIDS need more than a month to regain some stability. It takes about three months to connect with various federal and state programs that help with expenses and other services, said Frank Richards, director of the AIDS Resource Alliance in Orlando.

Centaur residents were supposed to pay $250 a month and Centaur would pay for the utilities, which averaged $85 a month.

However, many residents could not pay their rent, and rather than evict them, Centaur paid the bills _ $3,500 a month for all the apartments.

But after two years, public funds and private donations could no longer keep up with expenses, Tucci said.

Guy Wells, 56, was one man forced out of Centaur and back to a life on the streets of Orlando, packing all his belongings into a plastic book bag.

As he gripped his book bag _ "my homeless suitcase" _ the former convenience store manager knew his life had come to a point where he could sum it up in just five words.

"I'm homeless, helpless and jobless."

Wells had nowhere to turn after leaving. He spent most of his time on the street during the day and bouncing between shelters at night.

"I can't say anything bad about anybody who helps the homeless," Wells said, "but somebody who is infected should not be sleeping on a cement slab."

Centaur had a waiting list of more than a dozen people with AIDS when it shut down the program, and the combined problems of homelessness and AIDS is growing in Central Florida.

"AIDS, just like homelessness, is, unfortunately, a public issue," Tucci said. "It's going to get worse. Orlando hasn't really addressed it."

The Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida is trying to take up the slack to find temporary housing for AIDS patients.

The Coalition is searching for stable funding.

But that could take a while, and in the meantime Wells and others could be left out in the cold.