I imagine that’s how Carl felt when he met Chris. It was the first moment in a long time, maybe ever, that Carl had been treated with such dignity. That his anxiety, the trauma in his life, had been acknowledged. That somebody had his back and said, “I’m with you.” That’s when everything changed for Carl.
Project FIRST stands for Formerly Incarcerated Rental Support and Training, and it’s a program run by Bailey House to support HIV-positive ex-offenders who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. It helps people like Carl with whatever they need to get back on their feet, to stay healthy, and to stay out of trouble. Within the first few weeks, Project FIRST connects their clients with a rental assistance program run by the City of New York. Because of the flexible funding that EJAF and others provide, Bailey House is able to cover necessities such as security deposits and first month’s rent, so that clients can get into safe housing immediately. After all, if you don’t have anywhere to lay your head at night, how are you going to get the rest of your life together?
My foundation has been supporting this project at Bailey House since 2007, and we couldn’t be happier with how far they’ve come. Since Project FIRST got off the ground in 2003, they have successfully placed more than 200 people in permanent housing, and they have also connected them to the care they need to ensure their health and well-being. Many are still in the same apartments.
To me, Project FIRST is a tremendously efficient weapon against the AIDS crisis in New York City. We know that ex-offenders leave prison with disproportionately high rates of HIV. We know that they often don’t have a way to get the medical care they need, let alone a place to live. We know that their lack of job opportunities makes it all the more likely that they could slip back into risky sex, drug abuse, and other behavior that would put them in danger of spreading the disease or land them back in detention. Common sense says, let’s address all of these problems quickly—let’s not be afraid to help the very people who need the most help. Let’s not let stigma get in the way.
One of the things I love most about Project FIRST is that the program does more than fight AIDS; it helps people in the most basic ways. Caseworkers like Chris walk clients through the system and show them how to do everyday things such as open a bank account and figure out where they can go grocery shopping. They help clients get back into the community, find a doctor, take their medications regularly, get vocational training, and start taking care of themselves. For instance, Chris connected Carl with a clinic where he could go for medical tests, treatment, and medications, and Chris also got the necessary documentation of Carl’s AIDS status and income level to qualify him for housing assistance.
People who go through Bailey House’s program have much better health outcomes. And they are far less likely to end up back in the penal system. Typically, more than 40 percent of U.S. prisoners wind up returning to state prison within the first three years of being released. Fewer than 10 percent of Bailey House beneficiaries are reincarcerated.
A few months after meeting Chris, Carl walked back into Bailey House looking like he had just come off a golf course. The angry, anxious, and desperate ex-offender was now a dapper, healthy, employed man, wearing Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt, supporting himself, managing his HIV, and in a relationship with a woman he met at Bailey House. Today, Carl is mentoring fellow ex-offenders and doing peer outreach to get others living with HIV into care. He also testifies in front of the New York State Parole Board about the value of programs such as Bailey House’s. It’s no wonder that he’s willing to do so much for the organization. As Carl has said many times, “Chris and Bailey House saved my life.”
The Elton John AIDS Foundation has funded hundreds of projects. Each one operates a bit differently. Each does different work for different populations. But every project we fund has one thing in common: It is committed to a compassionate response and to fighting the stigma that spreads HIV/AIDS. The organizations target their work to the most marginalized populations, those who most need the services but are least likely to get them. They advocate against policies that promote discrimination. They shine a light on the taboo subjects that nobody wants to talk about but that have everything to do with this horrible disease. Most of all they treat each person they see in a holistic way.
That term, “holistic,” is thrown around a lot in medical circles. You hear doctors talking about caring for the whole patient, seeing to all of his or her medical needs at once. With HIV/AIDS, as with most diseases, it’s more than just the way the body itself works. So many people with the virus are also poor and vulnerable. They often need shelter, food, mental health services, employment opportunities, and people to care for and support them. They need critical help at critical moments to ensure their disease doesn’t come to define, or end, their lives.