A&U America's AIDS Magazine

It’s a Life Thing
Protecting young people of color in Los Angeles requires a whole-life focus
by Larry Buhl

Hip hop music blares over the mini-mall parking lot. A DJ shouts: “Get tested, and get a $10 gift card and enter a raffle for two tickets to see Chris Brown and Trey Songz at the Forum!”

In 2014, in a heavily Black and Latino area of Los Angeles, that’s what it takes, and more, to get young men and women to learn about HIV.

Events like the one sponsored by APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles) Health and Wellness are meant to lure youth to their new health center in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Mostly it’s word of mouth that brings in the target clients, says Eric Hernandez, an HIV and STD counselor at APLA, as we ducked into an office to avoid the booming bass of J. Cole.

“We commonly serve primarily African Americans and Latinos from the neighborhoods nearby,” Hernandez says. “Now that we’re transitioning from only STD and HIV care into primary care, that’s bringing in a lot of new clients that might not have come otherwise.”

Hernandez hits on a key point that often keeps the most at-risk youth from accessing HIV/AIDS services: the term “HIV/AIDS.” There’s a stigma with any place that tests for HIV, counselors and youth advocates say. If you’re seen going in there, others might wonder if you’re gay. And for men who have sex with men, who may not identify as gay, just going in for a test means having to label yourself.

That’s why the clinic plays up the Health and Wellness part of its name, and downplays its association with AIDS—APLA Health and Wellness organization has been separate from the thirty-one-year-old APLA organization since 2012—and features the prominent sign Gleicher/Chen Health Center at the entrance. The event I attended, part of R3VNG (“revenge”) prevention program that encouraged young men to “take revenge on HIV,” featured testing as well as links to treatment, answers about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and safer sex materials. But the event and the clinic also emphasize primary care, regardless of HIV status.

APLA’s transition to holistic care started back in 2010.

“We recognized that a lot of the participants we see through our prevention programs, mostly young gay and bisexual men of color, would have access to health care for the first time through the Affordable Care Act,” Vallerie D. Wagner, COO of APLAHW and Director of Education at APLA, tells A&U. “That’s when we made a strategic decision to spin APLA Health and Wellness off and ultimately go down the path of providing primary care. What better place for them to have a primary care home than a place that had been offering prevention services all along.”

APLA received Section 330 funding in November 2013, and started providing primary care in March of 2014 and did a major renovation of the space starting in April and re-opened as The Gleicher/Chen Health Center in October, 2014 as an FQHC (that’s a HERSA funding acronym for “federally qualified health center”).

The clinic offers dental services as well as health and substance abuse treatment, and just about anything one could get from any primary care physician.

And of course there’s HIV testing, prevention, and counseling. Clients are gently nudged to get it.

Whether it’s HIV services, a basic physical, or dental work, anybody living in L.A. County that wants services at Gleicher/Chen can get it. Clinic personnel believe they will get even more young people coming through their doors by promoting their full spectrum of health services.
“People who are openly gay don’t want to come in to access HIV services because [some in the community assume that if you are accessing HIV services that] must mean you’re gay,” Hernandez says.

The de-emphasis on the term HIV/AIDS is more than a clever promotional tactic to lure AIDS-phobic young men and women of color but part of a necessary evolution as the nature of the disease has changed, according to APLA management.

But the message is critical. It’s about meeting the patients and potential patients where they are, both in language and images and proximity. APLA Health and Wellness puts out its messages on Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t stop there. The outreach team goes to clubs and bars and events where young gay men of color meet. They also have poetry nights, and outings to the beach or amusement parks.

“We try to put a face on the programs geared toward the community we’re trying to reach,” Wagner says. “We don’t hit them with HIV right away. We talk to them about things going on in their lives. Their employment, how they party, who they party with. And then we weave in a message about HIV. We know that if you hit them with the HIV message too soon, they’ll shut down.”

One organization that frequently teams up with APLA Health and Wellness is REACH LA, an organization that trains and empowers low-income youth throughout greater Los Angeles.

It has a leadership program for sixteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds that meets once a week and includes group discussions about everything from current events to heavier topics like health and jobs and love (or lack of). Nestled in a nondescript office building in central L.A., REACH LA started in 1992 as a multi-media art studio, then transitioned to providing reproductive health for women, to an organization primarily focused on empowering African-American men (the funding determines the emphasis, as with many social service organizations). They also have a large ball in the fall that draws hundreds of young gay, bi, and trans (often preferring no labels) individuals of color.

It’s not exactly an LGBT organization, or an HIV/AIDS organization either, though it serves many in those communities. And the fear of HIV/AIDS looms large among its denizens, according to Deputy Director Greg Wilson.

“They’re afraid of what will happen if they test positive, how others will perceive them, will they be accepted by family,” Wilson tells A&U. “Many don’t know how to have relationships if one partner is positive and the other is negative.”

And most of all, they don’t like to be labeled, no matter who they love. It’s not just the stigma of being called gay or bi or a guy who has sex with men. They just don’t like labels, period, Wilson says. But that’s an issue when it comes to getting tested.

“We’ve had events like HIV testing hosted at churches, and none of the guys want to go, because they think, ‘If I’m not a gay guy, why am I going to get tested for HIV? Are people going to think I’m gay?’”

There are HIV testing services at REACH LA, as well as partner services for those who test positive. But it takes some finessing of the message to get young men of color to get tested and be receptive to safer sex messages. And, as the R3VNG event showed, it helps to provide some financial incentives.

“Gift cards to Target, which is right down the street, that helps bring them in to get tested,” Wilson says, adding that many of the poor and homeless kids they serve lack the basics to even get to the testing centers. Like bus tokens.

“The main thing is not using the word ‘AIDS’ in the name,” Wilson says. “Our task is to take away the stigma of that, to make them feel safe to come in.”

Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screen- writer, and novelist living in Los Angeles. His podcast on employment issues, “Labor Pains,” can be found at www.laborpainspodcast.com.