Project NOW unveiled details on Friday about a new partnership with DeLaCerda House in Rock Island, the only housing designated for people with HIV/AIDS in a 15-county area.

Thanks to the partnership with DeLaCerda House and the city of Rock Island, Project NOW (a community action agency serving Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties) is acquiring the three DeLaCerda housing units in the city and will be able to continue the legacy of James (Jim) DeLaCerda and Robb Dussliere.

Rev. Dwight Ford, executive director of Project NOW, speaking at Friday’s press conference (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We believe housing is the anchor to all other opportunity,” Project NOW executive director Rev. Dwight Ford said in a press conference Friday at the Rock Island Police Department. “Decent, accessible, affordable housing is a human right.”

To do this, the 55-year-old nonprofit needed partners and the city has filled that need, he said.

“It’s been wonderful, with Project NOW,” Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms said. “Rock Island is committed; the City Council is committed to continue this relationship.”

Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I continue to believe that collaborations, partnerships, that’s the way to do it,” he said. “You can’t do it alone.”

“Our medical community has made great strides in managing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Likewise, our community has rallied together to provide support and hope to those afflicted,” said Jake Neilson, board president of DeLaCerda House, whose uncle was Robb Dussliere (who lost his battle with AIDS in 1996). Yet, much more must be done to end this epidemic, he said.

“We must adjust the way that we serve our community to reflect the realities of living with HIV and AIDS in the now,” Neilson said. “ff we can empower people with housing and basic opportunities, they have a better chance to manage this condition and live longer, happier and healthier lives.”

Jake Neilson, board president of DeLaCerda House (photo by Jonathan Turner).

A QC native, he moved back to the area in 2021 after working in Washington, D.C., and believes that joining forces with Project NOW “will be the endgame of the AIDS epidemic,” Neilson said. “We look forward to working with Project NOW as my fellow board members and I will be joining the Project NOW Housing Committee in support of the organization’s housing activities.”

Launching in 1994

DeLaCerda House was established in 1994 to honor the memory of James (Jim) DeLaCerda, a healthcare professional who was diagnosed with AIDS, treated patients with AIDS, and advocated for the elimination of the harmful stigmas that too often accompany the disease. He died in 1993.

Jim DeLaCerda died from AIDS in 1993 at 46.

In 1996, through the strong advocacy work of Robb Dussliere, DeLaCerda House opened Robb’s House; the first of three properties owned by DeLaCerda House.

The mission of DeLaCerda House is to provide housing, advocacy services, and progressive case management for persons with HIV/AIDS who are experiencing homelessness.

Robb Dussliere (who died of AIDS in 1996 at 34) was the driving force in getting DeLaCerda House open.

The three properties (in Rock Island’s 1st Ward) are Robb’s House (with five single rooms); Steven’s Place (eight one-bedroom apartments), and Longview Place (which opened in 2009 with two separate duplexes).

“We had to change the way we serve our community,” Pete Lux, vice president of the DeLaCerda board, said Friday, noting both Project NOW and DeLaCerda help people with housing and advocate for their needs.

DeLaCerda House board vice chair Pete Lux (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Becoming part of Project NOW is the most logical progression for DeLaCerda House,” Lux said. “I regard this move with much optimism.”

“The reality is, we need a good partner. We need resources, so that the mission continues,” said Cathy Jordan, former executive director for DeLaCerda House, who will become the new Project NOW homeless coordinator.

Cathy Jordan, former DeLaCerda executive director, speaks at Friday’s press conference (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I’m optimistic, actually excited, to partner with Project NOW to become a part of this family – to find the resources we need to continue to make lives important and that people can live a wonderful quality of life with HIV,” she said. “The future is bright.”

Miles Brainard, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, helped coordinate the transfer of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development $60,000 grant for Steven’s Place.

Miles Brainard, director of the Rock Island community and economic development department (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The management will be assumed by Project NOW, Ford said.

“The city has been proud to partner with Project NOW and DeLaCerda House,” Brainard said. “I’m very proud to work with a team of people who recognize that housing comes first. If you don’t have a roof over your head; if you don’t have a safe place to lay down and sleep at night, ain’t nothing else gonna work out in life. That’s the foundation.”

A personal passion

“This is a personal passion of mine. At one point, I was homeless, so I can understand what all goes into that, physically and emotionally,” said Rock Island Ald. Jenni Swanson. She chairs a homeless coalition with other local nonprofits.

Rock Island Ald. Jenni Swanson (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“From the city of Rock Island, we are thrilled to be a partner and we are happy to help in any way we can,” Swanson said.

“What it’s like to live with HIV or AIDS has changed vastly than it was 30 years ago, when we started,” Neilson said. “A lot of people in our programs need additional help. They need help addressing poverty; they need that extra step in addressing what’s next.

“We are so thankful that an HIV diagnosis is no longer essentially the death sentence that it once was, as long as people get the treatment that they need,” he said. “That is so important – people are still dying from AIDS and that doesn’t have to be the case.”

“We understood what they were doing, and their mission, clearly,” Rev. Ford said, noting DeLaCerda reached out about merging their nonprofits. “We only exist to build meaningful relationships and coalitions…We can’t do this by ourselves; we have to have a network that actually works.”

An image from the DeLaCerda House Facebook page.

Project NOW appreciated the call and was honored “that they would think enough of us to be caretakers in the entrustment of their mission, and we look forward to doing that,” Ford said.

“We consider this a combination of assets, a combination of missions,” Neilson said. “We are not looking to make any money off the deal. They are taking on our staff and a lot of our staff are grant-funded. We’re working with various grant providers right now to get those transferred as part of this transition.”

Cathy Jordan’s position is not grant-funded, but will be absorbed by Project NOW, said community services director Ron Lund. She started with DeLaCerda in 2018, and previously worked for Humility Homes and Services, and Community Health Care.

Project NOW is taking on all assets, debt and staff of DeLaCerda, which has been its own 501c3 nonprofit, Lund of Project NOW noted, including a mortgage on one of the properties.

At one time, DeLaCerda serves at least 17 people, and rent is typically 30 percent of income, he said. “If they don’t have income, we pay 100 percent.”

The only house with a time limit is Robb’s House, meant to be transitional housing, with two years maximum, he said.

One of only 7 in Illinois

In 2022, 24 individuals were served by DeLaCerda House, Jordan said. “We are one of seven entities in the whole state that do what we do, and the only one in northwestern Illinois,” she said.

A majority of people in the LGBTQ community are at higher risk of homelessness, “because of the stigma attached,” Jordan said. “Also, there’s just an inherentness of, they don’t have adequate resources. They can’t keep their housing stable, because they need good health care.”

“If you’re not well, you can’t take care of everything else in your life,” she said. “We believe housing is health care. Without that, nothing else matters.”

“We found that there were more needs for our participants than we had resources for,” Jordan said. It made sense to go to a larger entity, with a big reach and more resources available.

“It’s a win-win for both of us,” she said of DeLaCerda and Project NOW. “We can help educate on a housing end, for Project NOW to give them another entity they serve in terms of community. But also, the people that we serve will have access to better resources than we could offer them. It really is a win-win.”

The farthest DeLaCerda House has served is someone from the north side of Chicago, Jordan said. There’s a similar organization in that area, but it has a waiting list.

For more information on Project NOW, visit its website HERE.