Eric Johnson House, serving HIV-AIDS population for 25 years, to close in Morristown

The Eric Johnson House. Photo: NJAS-Inc.
The former Eric Johnson House. Photo: NJAS-Inc.
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For a quarter-century, the Eric Johnson House in Morristown has provided a temporary haven for people coming to grips with HIV-AIDS.

But times change, and the transitional home behind the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer will close its doors by January 2019.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Laurie Litt, CEO of New Jersey AIDS Services Inc., which leases the facility from the church, said on Friday. “For me, 25 years of my life have been spent at the Eric Johnson House.”

But the trend now is for permanent housing for this population, and NJAS will concentrate its efforts on that, Litt told MorristownGreen.com.

“Our lease was coming due, and it’s the right time to make a change,” she said.

Her nonprofit will continue providing support services for the HIV-AIDS community from its Morris Plains offices, on the former grounds of Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital.

Litt pledged to find permanent accommodations for all seven clients now staying at the Eric Johnson House.

Mayor Tim Dougherty with Joann McEniry and Laurie Litt of NJ AIDS Services, at the AIDS Walk in Morristown, May 7, 2017. Photo by Jeff Sovelove
Mayor Tim Dougherty with Joann McEniry and Laurie Litt of NJ AIDS Services, at the AIDS Walk in Morristown, May 7, 2017. Photo by Jeff Sovelove

“I’m not making anybody homeless,” she said. “We always believed people have a right to have a safe place to lay their head at night, and we will always work towards that.”

Redeemer Rector Cynthia Black said the NJAS decision came as a surprise.

Describing the Eric Johnson House as “a beacon of hope to those who, especially two decades ago, the world would prefer to pretend didn’t exist,” Black said she was sorry to see NJAS go.

But, the rector added, “we also understand that models of care change and that it’s important to be providing the best services possible for those living with HIV and AIDS…Redeemer has had a mutual ministry with the Eric Johnson House from the very beginning, and I personally will miss the relationships I have developed with the folks who live there.”

Built circa 1910 to serve as a rectory, the three-story stone house on South Street was renamed for the son of Redeemer parishioners. Eric Johnson died of AIDS in 1990.

Black said it may take awhile to find another tenant “consistent with our values and vision— celebrating love, doing justice.”

Litt estimates NJAS raised about $600,000 for renovations that included addition of an elevator and creation of 10 bedrooms.

When the Eric Johnson House began in 1994, a diagnosis of HIV-AIDS still carried a stigma, she said. People in that situation faced a “desperate need of a safe place to live. Evictions due to one’s HIV status were at an all-time high, family members were displacing loved ones after becoming aware of their status, and there were little to no housing protections.”

Fortunately, Litt said, the stigma has eased. Advances in medication, support services and legal protections, combined with diminishing transmission rates of the virus and the trend toward permanent housing, convinced her it’s “time to shift gears and refocus” NJAS.

“Twenty-five years ago when we opened the doors of the Eric Johnson House, the reality facing people with HIV was grim. In our wildest dreams, we couldn’t imagine a day when the transitional housing component of our program would no longer be needed,” Litt said in a statement.

About 65 percent of her organization’s $2 million budget is government funding; the rest is from private donors and fundraising events that include an annual AIDS walk, said Litt, a clinical social worker.

NJAS is searching for a new site to expand services for the LGBTQ+ community; host more mentoring programs and “coming out” support groups for youths and parents; and fill gaps in medical, dental, and psychological care for clients.

Securing permanent housing for clients is especially challenging, Litt said, because federal housing subsidies do not reflect high costs in Morris County.

But Litt said she and her 13-person staff remain determined.

“Everything we do is continuing. Hopefully, it’s getting bigger and better.”

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