Calif. Legal Aid Group Leader On Fighting For Those With HIV

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Matt Foreman, the new executive director of San Francisco's AIDS Legal Referral Panel, continues to be stunned by how many think the fight against AIDS is over.

Headshot of white man with gray hair and goatee wearing a button-down shirt and sweater with protesters behind him

Matt Foreman

At the more than 40-year-old nonprofit, which provides free and low-cost legal services to people living with HIV through staff and volunteer attorneys, Foreman is confronted daily by the challenges people living with HIV face. Those struggles touch on housing, immigration and other issues.

"There is a perception out there that HIV is manageable and that it's a thing of the past and everything is hunky dory and fine and dandy for people living with HIV," Foreman said. "Of course, it's radically different than it was in the '80s and early '90s. But the lingering effects of HIV, particularly on people 50 and older, are profound. And I think unacknowledged."

Foreman took over as head of ALRP at the end of 2023 following the retirement of longtime executive director Bill Hirsh. An attorney turned LGBTQ rights activist, Foreman was at one point the leader of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and before that head of the Empire State Pride Agenda.

Foreman talked with Law360 Pulse to discuss his role at ALRP and what he hopes to accomplish in the coming years. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What kind of legal work does ALRP do?

All of our clients are living with HIV or affected by HIV, as in the partner of someone living with HIV. When we started 40 years ago, 85% of our caseload was wills, trusts and estates. Now, wills and trusts are down to about 10% of our caseload.

Today, about 40% of our cases are housing. Eviction defense is the biggest part of our practice, but we also do conditions of habitability and unfair rent increases. Many of our clients are living in Section 8 housing and there'll be a snafu around payment of their rent which is supposed to be automatically deducted from their benefits and something happens to that. The system breaks down for one reason or another and suddenly they're in arrears for no fault of their own.

Many of our clients are behind on their rent and it's a nonpayment proceeding. Then it's how can we intervene at the last minute to work out a payment arrangement with the landlord and determine where that money is going to be coming from.

Next is immigration, which is largely asylum work. But we are encountering a crisis in being able to meet the needs of immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. They're threatened with deportation but don't have an active asylum case that could defer that and result in an order granting them legal residency in this country. Of our clients, all are HIV+ and the majority are LGBT. Immigration judges do understand that deporting a HIV+ or LGBT person back to their country of origin, in most cases, is a death sentence. With the proper work, the proper arguing in immigration court, we can get an order staying their deportation, which is not the clean win that people get in being granted asylum, but it's a win. It keeps them in the country. And they're not always worried about being arrested and being thrown on a bus and then suddenly on a plane to death.

Then we have a lot of insurance- and benefits-related issues. There are issues of people who have been living on their workplace disability policy for a long time and they are being pushed off their disability plans by their employer's plan holder, alleging that the person should be working. Then there's disability payments under private plans which almost universally end when someone reaches 65. So you have people who have been on private disability for years, suddenly they are without income and they have not paid into Social Security so their Social Security benefits are small. We help them access benefits, whether its Supplemental Security Income, Section 8 housing, CalFresh [SNAP benefits] and other forms of public assistance.

Why is what you do important?

It's important because we are dealing with a relatively small but very unique pool of individuals who because of HIV have unique challenges. It isn't just that they are HIV+. It's that being HIV+ is so often associated with so many other issues. HIV is the thread in our clients lives that very often has led to very poor life situations. People who think that HIV stigma is over are sorely mistaken. So very often, the level of poverty and the reliance on government sources of income that are arbitrary and often sporadic, the physical and mental health consequences of having HIV, I think we serve a very unique role — I know it's a unique role because there's no one else like us in the whole country — for a very unique population.

Where do you see ALRP in five years?

I would like us to be able to continue the high level of services that we are doing right now. Given the headwinds that are facing both our government funding and just general economic challenges in San Francisco, our number one goal is to maintain and sustain what we are doing now. What we are doing is unique in the country. I think it's extraordinary. I also know that institutions of any size but especially smaller ones, are fragile.

Number two, if we can make a dent in some of the systemic issues that create these chronic challenges in the lives of our clients, I would consider that an extraordinary achievement. I'm talking about things like providing clients assistance once they've received our assistance, let's say to stop an eviction. How do we help them, how does the system help them not face that same crisis 10 or 12 months later? The way bureaucracies are right now, like SSI, are so unbelievably petty and doctrinaire, if you don't file something on time, they suddenly yank $100 away from your benefits. $100 doesn't sound like that a lot to most people, but it's a ton of money to most of our clients. So many of our clients are poor — 80% of our clients have incomes of less than $30,000 a year, and 50% have incomes of less than $15,000 a year. In the Bay Area! When you're living on $15,000 a year, there is no such thing as a little legal crisis. Any legal challenge can put you right off that razor's edge that you're living on a week-to-week basis.

The best way to prevent homelessness is to prevent people from losing their homes. But we have the city paying to evict people from city-paid programs, while we and other organizations like ALRP come in to defend those clients from being evicted. How absurd is this process that city dollars are being used to evict and to prevent an eviction. That's a good example of where modest investments of money to help troubled people would save everyone money. And more importantly help people who are in distress.

Tell us about yourself. What's your background?

I grew up in West Virginia, went to college there and then went to law school at NYU School of Law. I worked for a small law boutique firm that did real estate tax syndication from 1982 to 1984, but I was terrible at it. Then I worked for the Department of Corrections in New York City, running a jail on Riker's Island. At that time, I was also chair of New York City's gay pride committee. It was quite a dichotomy to be working on gay pride at night and being on Riker's Island during the day.

That led me in 1990 to a job as executive director of the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. When I first came out [as gay] in West Virginia and then in New York, I was just overwhelmed with how much violence and prejudice there was [toward LGBT people]. It just made me furious to see my friends, myself experiencing this senseless hatred. As you get more involved in it, you become more solidified, or at least I did, in "We have got to fight this at every step."

From there, I became executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda and in 2003, I moved to Washington, D.C., to head the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In 2008, I moved to San Francisco and joined the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund as a program director with their philanthropic giving, especially overseeing their donations for LGBT rights. In the early 2020s, the Haas Jr. Fund decided after 21 years of working in LGBT rights and more than $100 million in grants — which is really quite exceptional given that they are not a gay foundation and they don't have gay people on their board — decided they wanted to focus more on California and wanted to wind down the LGBT program. We spent two years winding it down, then just when I needed a new job, this one at ALRP came up. Moving to ALRP has been an unbelievable opportunity.

Even though Bill Hirsh has officially retired after 24 years as executive director, he's sticking around to help out on some issues?

I love Bill. I did not know him before, but I am so happy I met him. It's been a wonderful experience. He trained me for my first two months here, before he retired.

Bill has agreed to generously work with us because he has been the point person among the HIV service providers in San Francisco in leading the charge every budget cycle. It's not just ALRP, it's our sister organizations. We need him this year to help us through this incredibly challenging time. Bill has mastered the art of, how do you go to the Board of Supervisors and the mayor with a 100% united voice? You don't allow people to fight for their piece of the pie over anyone else and just hammer away at them about the importance of these programs. I've lobbied on legislation a lot, but I have never done this kind of very up-close personal trench warfare around a budget. That's why I'm so grateful to have Bill help me through this.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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