Live Your BLISS: Maitri

Actor Leslie Jordan hosts a fundraiser for San Francisco's Maitri, an AIDS hospice

by Larry Buhl

Leslie Jordan, host of upcoming Maitri fundraising event, BLISS. Photo courtesy Maitri
Leslie Jordan, host of upcoming Maitri fundraising event, BLISS. Photo courtesy Maitri

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of only two AIDS hospices left in the United States is about to turn twenty-nine, and while it might surprise some that nearly all hospices have disappeared, others who assume HIV/AIDS is a crisis that’s over and done might be shocked that there is still a need for such end-of-life services.

There is a great need. Fortunately for those people with AIDS who need residential care in San Francisco, Maitri (pronounced “my-tree”) isn’t going anywhere.

Right now Maitri preparing for BLISS, its largest annual fundraising gala. BLISS 2016 will be hosted by out and proud comic Leslie Jordan, who won an Emmy for best guest actor in 2006 for his work on Will & Grace.

Jordan has had a long history of working for AIDS-related causes, but he admits his efforts didn’t always go smoothly.

In the eighties Jordan was volunteering for Project Angel Food in Los Angeles when his supervisor reprimanded him for taking too long delivering meals to AIDS survivors’ homes.

“We had to deliver four meals a day but I was chatting with the clients and kept getting delayed,” Jordan told me. “I was fired from a volunteer job because I talked and joked too much. Can you believe it?”

Knowing Jordan, one could easily believe it.

These days Jordan has been using his gifts of gab and wit in building a parallel career hosting HIV/AIDS fundraisers. Last year he was given the HIV Partner for Life Award, one of the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, for his work with HIV/AIDS charities. Last year he hosted forty-four events across the country, many of them benefitting LGBT or HIV/AIDS organizations.

Jordan made a splash, pun not intended, by throwing a cup of iced tea—not hot coffee, he emphasizes—at three men shouting anti-gay slurs last year at a Starbucks in West Hollywood. The incident was reported by TMZ and raised Jordan’s stature (pun not intended to emphasize Jordan’s 4’11” height—he makes fun of that himself) as an angry gay activist. He set the record straight (pun again not intended) by saying that he regretted losing his temper. He told me his heroes—Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin—keep their cool no matter what.

Then again, Jordan’s heroes are funny and so is he. Whether he brings up the Starbucks incident at BLISS, or not, the audience is guaranteed to laugh, even with the understanding that Maitri’s ongoing mission couldn’t be more serious.

Compassionate Care
BLISS, though it brings in only a small part of Maitri’s $2.5 annual operating budget, is critical for the residential center to continue in its mission that no one with AIDS should have to suffer or die alone, according to Maitri’s executive director Michael Smithwick.

Despite the fact that HIV/AIDS has been a manageable disease (for most) for almost twenty years, people are still dying of AIDS.

An estimated 13,712 people with an AIDS diagnosis died in 2012, based on the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. However, correlation is not causation, and estimating deaths from AIDS alone is tricky. The CDC points out that deaths of people with an AIDS diagnosis can be due to any cause and may or may not be related to AIDS.

Still, it’s understood that life-saving HIV meds don’t work for everyone, and not everyone can access them. And more than 1 in 8 Americans living with HIV are unaware they’re infected, according to the CDC. That means some people with HIV are going to face a death not unlike so many did in the darkest days of the 1980s and ’90s.

In the early 1990s, there were five AIDS hospices in San Francisco. For the last ten years there has been just Maitri, one of only two AIDS hospices in the U.S., with fifteen beds and a long waiting list.

Maitri’s origins go back to 1987, when Issan Dorsey, a drag queen and IV drug user turned Buddhist monk, opened the Hartford Street Zen Center for men dying of AIDS.


Volunteers and residents celebrate a birthday at Maitri. Photo courtesy Maitri
Volunteers and residents celebrate a birthday at Maitri. Photo courtesy Maitri

Nearly thirty years later, the center, renamed Maitri, offers twenty-four-hour nursing services, three hot meals each day, comfortable bedding and home-like accommodations for its fifteen residents, all challenged with advanced AIDS.

Those who are actually dying of AIDS these days tend to fall into one of two subsets of the population: they have waited too long for a diagnosis and treatment, and long-term survivors who suffer from clinical fatigue, or “old AIDS” as some call it.

“I hate to call it a trend but we are seeing more people who have cumulative effects of the virus and medications that have taken a toll on the body,” Smithwick says. “We are increasingly seeing seniors who have lived a good chunk of their lives with HIV, and now their bodies are breaking down.”

I wondered about the benefit of that care tailored for people with HIV/AIDS. After all, if someone needs palliative or end-of-life care, does it really matter where they receive it? Smithwick says it does matter because Maitri residents simply feel more comfortable knowing everyone else is in a similar situation (dying of AIDS-related illnesses).

But not everyone comes to Maitri to die. Approximately thirty percent come to Maitri for end-of-life care, Smithwick tells me. Others arrive to be medically stabilized so they can go home for a while, or go home permanently. Priority is given to those who need end-of-life care, however, and beds are given first to those with the fewest resources who are living in the most dire situations.

“Literally people come here who would be dying on the street,” he says.

Fourteen of Maitri’s 15 beds are reserved for HUD-defined low-income people and represent ninety

Michael Smithwick, executive director of Maitri. Photo courtesy Maitri
Michael Smithwick, executive director of Maitri. Photo courtesy Maitri

percent of San Francisco’s non-institutional hospice beds, the organization says.

Maitri’s program director is networked into the HIV/AIDS community, including San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86. On occasion a social service organization will find a homeless person with AIDS and brings him or her to Maitri.

Smithwick recounts a homeless man who got lucky when a bed opened up two days before Christmas. “He was able to spend Christmas Eve here, where he could open presents with the other residents. Christmas is a big deal here.”

Smithwick says less than twenty percent of Maitri’s annual operating budget goes for administrative and fundraising expenses, meaning donations go directly toward providing care.

In addition to Leslie Jordan, BLISS 2016 will feature ballet troupe Man Dance Company and Oakland jazz vocalist Branice McKenzie. Guitarist Andre Morgan will be playing at a VIP reception. The event will be held on Sunday, May 1, at the Mission Bay Conference Center-UCSF starting at 4 p.m. The sponsorship packages start at $1,000 and individual tickets are $225.

BLISS 2015’s 300 tickets sold out well in advance, and Maitri is telling supporters to purchase their tickets and sponsorships early this year.


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Larry Buhl writes A&U’s monthly Hep Talk column.