As a young man majoring in music and singing in Nordic Choir under the late Weston Noble ’43 in the 1980s, Chuck Peterson ’85 would never have anticipated that he’d spend so much time thinking about affordable housing and social justice, all through a lens of the HIV epidemic.
Peterson is the executive director of Clare Housing, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis that provides long-term supportive housing for low-income and homeless individuals who are HIV positive. It’s a stressful job, he says, but it’s also the best job he’s ever had.
“I’ve learned more in the last six years [since becoming executive director] than I’ve learned in my lifetime,” he says. “It’s an incredibly humbling experience.”
To understand how Peterson got into this work, we have to go back to the 1990s. A young graduate from Luther, he was living and working in the Twin Cities when a series of big, interrelated things began to unfold in his life: He came out as gay to family and friends; he lost his best friend to HIV; and he began caring for his brother who was also diagnosed as HIV positive. It was an intense time, to say the least.
On top of this, the public perception of HIV in the ’90s was one of fear, stigma, and discrimination. But rather than hiding from it, he wanted to get involved, to make a difference. So began a lifelong pursuit for peace and justice in the midst of an epidemic.
In 1995, Peterson landed a job as executive director at Grace House, an affordable housing cooperative that is now part of Clare Housing. There he saw firsthand how integral a role housing played for those living with HIV.
“Oftentimes, people living with HIV not only had to deal with coming out as HIV positive to their families, but they were also coming out as gay at the same time,” Peterson says. “So many young men were being pushed out of their homes and had nowhere to go. Grace House was a supportive, loving environment in the final days and months of their lives.”
For many years Peterson burned the candle at both ends trying to improve an issue that was epic in proportion. For his own well-being he stepped away for a few years but stayed involved by volunteering in the HIV community. Then, 12 years ago, he joined the board at Clare Housing. When the executive director retired, Peterson earned the role. He climbed back into the saddle—but things were much different this time.
“To be frank, in the ’90s we were primarily serving middle-income white gay men. Today, HIV disproportionally impacts communities of color, homeless communities, and those with chemical addictions,” Peterson says. “It’s estimated that up to 50 percent of young gay black men will be HIV positive in their lifetime if we don’t deal with the racial inequalities around healthcare, housing, and education. In reality, I talk about this as an equity issue. It’s great that we have national and statewide plans to end the epidemic, but if we don’t address the underlying racial inequalities we’re not going to end it.”
Peterson talks a lot about housing as healthcare, explaining that in order to put an end to these destructive cycles we must understand that having a roof over one’s head is central to the healing process, and something that everyone deserves.
The ever-rising cost of housing in the Twin Cities is at the heart of the problem. Clare residents, whose median income is $570 a month, are happy to have a sanctuary they can afford. But there isn’t enough to go around. Currently, Clare Housing comprises four buildings in various locations in the Twin Cities, along with scattered sites as well, and under Peterson’s leadership the organization has been able to add another 100 housing units. Still, the waiting list is nearly 400-deep and growing right along with housing costs.
Even so, Peterson remains optimistic, especially when he reflects on the difference that he’s seen Clare Housing make in the lives of its residents.
“I’m a pretty passionate person, and being at Luther shaped that. I think Weston Noble was driven by human need and compassion, and he had an influence over my thinking,” Peterson says. “I’m happiest doing mission-driven work. When I go home at night, I think, ‘We did good today. We changed somebody’s life, and we’re moving people in a different direction.’”