It’s still the case that in communities across America people with AIDS are sometimes treated like dirt. If they’re gay, it can be even worse. They’re so afraid of the judgment of their communities, even their families, that they won’t get tested. Despite how far we've come, people in America today still experience abuse. That’s why some HIV-positive people travel hours from their homes to get help from SLAC. The organization works hard to make clients whose families have ostracized them feel safe.
Thanks to SLAC and its dedicated caseworkers like Angela, Loretta started managing her disease. She went back to school to finish her GED. Today, she volunteers with SLAC, facilitating a women’s support group. She even has her own office space, where she mentors other people who are struggling to come to terms with HIV/AIDS. Loretta is taking her experience, her story, and sharing it with others. She is using it to help them get through this incredibly difficult experience. She’s a living reminder that we cannot simply treat the disease; we must treat the person.
When confronted with an enormous crisis like AIDS, it’s easy to feel helpless. And in the face of huge numbers—millions of people infected, billions of dollars spent—it’s easy to feel, as an individual, or even as an organization, that we can’t make a difference. But SLAC is an example of how a relatively small amount of money can go a really long way when compassion is at the center of our efforts.
This is true for all marginalized populations, everywhere. Take the formerly incarcerated, for instance. They are among the most marginalized populations in the United States. And the formerly incarcerated who are HIV-positive are even further marginalized.
In New York, after an HIV-positive prisoner finishes his sentence, he’s whisked away from an upstate detention facility and dropped off at the Port Authority bus station in Manhattan. He’s usually given no more than $50, three days of medication, and a list of social service organizations that might be able to help.
Imagine: You are standing all alone by the bus or the subway. You haven’t been outside the walls of prison, let alone in the middle of Midtown, in years. You have nowhere to go, maybe no one to call. And the clock has started ticking—you have seventy-two hours until your medication runs out.
For Carl, after twenty-four years in prison, that experience made him feel like he was Rip van Winkle, waking up to a whole new world. Everybody around him was talking into a mobile phone. He had used a token the last time he rode the subway; what on earth was a MetroCard?
The world had changed, and so had Carl. He was infected with HIV in prison, and he left with AIDS.
Carl was luckier than many; someone he “ran with” picked him up from the Port Authority. They spent the next three days driving around to every single organization on the list he was given when he was released from prison. At all of these places, places that were supposed to help him, he heard the same thing: “Where’s your Medicaid card? ”
Carl had been released without any documentation of his HIV status, and since he didn't have Medicaid, there were few places he could go to be tested. He waited hours at a city agency to apply for public assistance in order to get the funds he needed to buy medication, but there was a 45-day waiting period to determine if he was eligible for benefits.
Carl’s story is all too common. The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world: more than 2.3 million people, or 1 in every 104 adults. Almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners are in America. And as of December 2008, about 1.5 percent of all prisoners in the nation were HIV-positive. When these HIV-positive prisoners reenter society, very few are connected with services to give them stability and support while they figure out how to handle their health and their new lives.
That was the case for Carl. He was overwhelmed, exhausted, and almost totally defeated when he showed up late in the afternoon at Bailey House, a halfway house in East Harlem for people living with HIV/AIDS. By the time he walked through the front door, he was out of medication and he was a ball of anxiety. That’s when Carl met Chris Olin, a caseworker for Project FIRST at Bailey House—another real-life hero. Chris is one of those exceptional people. You know, those people who just immediately put you at ease. Chris said to Carl, “I've got this for you.”
It can be paralyzing to be in the throes of your own crisis. I remember that feeling when I walked into rehab, like I had no control over anything that was happening to me, like I didn't know where to begin. When I was told not to worry, when I was told that people were going to help me, it was like an enormous weight lifted off my chest. Suddenly I had a chance to get better, because I wasn't alone anymore.