For more than a year, the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating and disproportionate impact on Black, Hispanic and Native American communities diverted attention away from another worrying health problem.
HIV and AIDS might have gone underground, but didn’t disappear. I was thinking of this as I drove by the Out of the Closet thrift store on 34th Street S, near the Center for Health Equity, whose parking lot in recent weeks has been crammed with cars of people clamoring for the coronavirus vaccine.
Dominating a corner lot slightly south is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Out of the Closet building. It’s where shoppers can buy secondhand couches and clothing and various other finds.
But the thrift store serves another, almost covert purpose. It’s also where people can get free, confidential HIV and STD tests, pick up medicine at an onsite pharmacy and visit a healthcare center.
“It’s really a bit of a unique twist to providing services,” Shaundia White, AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s regional director for Central Florida, said to me this week. “It’s really a more discreet way of getting testing.”
And a shield from the stigma still associated with the virus in certain circles.
I should mention that Out of the Closet is located close to mostly African-American neighborhoods. That’s intentional, White said, explaining that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is committed to taking HIV testing and education into underserved communities.
“We wanted to create a sort of a medical home,” White said. That is, a place of convenient, wrap-around services, where a person can walk in and get HIV and STD tests, be directly linked to care, is set up with a case manager and can receive financial help for treatment and medication.
It’s easy to see why this facility opened in this particular neighborhood almost four years ago. According to the CDC, the nation’s Black population accounts for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses than other races. The CDC adds that Black people accounted for just 13 percent of the U.S. population, but made up 42 percent of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in 2018.
Access to care is not always convenient. “A lot of times, people have to go out of their comfort zone to access care,” White said. “Retention in HIV care is a growing issue. It’s really keeping people engaged in coming to their doctors, taking their medicine.”
Obstacles might include not being able to take time off work, lack of child care and dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. Fortunately, the wellness center tucked into the Out of the Closet building offers evening hours. HIV services can be accessed by telehealth and the foundation is able to help clients with transportation difficulties.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, based in Los Angeles and operating in more than 40 countries, is eager to work with community leaders to help them share accurate information about HIV, White said. “I think a lot of times, people will not necessarily listen to their doctor, but to their pastor, their community leader. It really starts with destigmatizing HIV within the Black community.”
Across the country, though not yet in St. Petersburg, the foundation is attempting to address the HIV epidemic in Black and Brown communities in culturally sensitive ways, explained Imara Canady, the foundation’s national director of communications and chair of the Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition.
The organization has set up pastor-to-pastor conversations to discuss ways to reach vulnerable groups, he said. In Houston, Pastor D.Z. Cofield of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church was already leading the way.
During a telephone conversation this week, Cofield told me about his church’s health and wellness activism, begun in 2015 to address health disparities in nearby Black and Brown communities.
Cofield said his large congregation connected with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation because, at the time, it was one of the few organizations doing rapid HIV tests and that was committed to treating anyone whether they could pay or not.
Educating the community about HIV is important, he said. “There have been so many advances around HIV and AIDS. For many people in our community, they still see it as a death sentence,” he said. “There are still people in the Black community wondering how Magic Johnson is still alive.”
The NAACP has also sought the influence of Black churches to address the HIV crisis. In 2013, it issued a manual, “The Black Church & HIV, the Social Justice Imperative,” that offered suggestions and strategies for integrating a social justice approach with HIV activism in the church.
The Rev. Kenny Irby of Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg says the African Methodist Episcopal denomination has had a longstanding HIV/AIDS ministry. He spoke of the late Rev. Bernard Smith, who pioneered the effort locally when he was pastor at Greene Chapel AME Church in Largo. (His last congregation was St. James AME Church in Clearwater.) Many local AME congregations went on to establish testing sites at their churches, Irby said.
“We have a unit as part of our Be Healthy ministry,” he said of Historic Bethel. “We have seminars. We work with the Health Department and AIDS activists in hosting events.” Before the pandemic, Historic Bethel offered such programs as part of its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and included them in its street fair for the church’s 120th anniversary.
“We’ve been intentional about making sure we are providing information and testing,” Irby said. “That’s a part of the full cycle of mind, body and soul ministry, as part of our health outreach efforts.”
Others agree with that approach. “For any kind of illness or disease, social unrest, the church should be involved,” the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church said.
And Bishop Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church is “open to developing programs that would assist people” in such areas as testing, counseling and making sure that they get the medicines they need.
Black churches have been criticized for being latecomers – or being absent altogether – to confronting the issue of HIV and AIDS. They’ve also been accused of of being homophobic, hypocritical and condemning. There’s no doubt that many still are, but with Black people continuing to be infected with HIV at higher rates than any other group, it’s time for a unified and compassionate approach to the problem.
Organizations like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation can help. They’re in the neighborhood.