By María José Durán
Christie’s Place helps families affected by the disease
“I was a drug addict and a prostitute and I knowingly slept with a man that I knew had AIDS because I wanted to get high.”
That, Jay Blount said, is why she became diagnosed with AIDS 20 years ago. Today, she helps other women living with HIV while working as a peer navigator at Christie’s Place, a nonprofit organization in Bankers Hill.
Women often put the needs of their families before themselves. For females living with HIV, this can be dangerous. “[My job] is about empowering, training and teaching women that they should come first, especially in their health care,” Blount said.
Medical advances can now ensure that HIV patients live long lives and have an undetectable amount of virus in their blood. If the woman adheres to medication, she won’t develop AIDS and the virus is very unlikely to be transmitted.
Erin Falvey, Christie’s Place’s clinical director, works to accomplish that.
“It’s really important from a public health standpoint. That’s why we want people with HIV to be retained in health care and medication because then the virus is not being spread,” Falvey said.
Around 20,000 people in San Diego live with HIV, and women make up only 10 percent of that total. Although this number has increased since the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s, the care is traditionally centered around men.
“Some of the service providers are more organized to gay and bisexual men, and women felt like they weren’t addressed. Christie’s Place fills that gap,” said Patrick Loose, chief of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency’s HIV, STD and Hepatitis branch.
“Women have unique needs. They are the ones that take care of the family,” Blount said.
Falvey said there is a disproportional impact of the disease on women’s health. Females are diagnosed later and when that happens they proceed to AIDS and death faster than men. “In order to really undertake the disparity we have to make sure that we create women’s centers that are gender responsive and have an approach to health care for [them],” she said.
About 1,200 women with HIV/AIDS currently use Christie’s Place’s assistance. And 91 percent of them live below the federal poverty line. The first Tuesday of every month, the organization gives away fresh produce to its clients.
Women that report sexual assault make up 44 percent of Christie’s Place’s clients. And 27 percent of them have recently experienced intimate partner violence. Falvey believes that these percentages are larger than it has been reported because it’s still hard for women to disclose this information.
“[Domestic violence] is sort of a newer thing that people are paying attention to, but it’s nearly universal to have one of these factors as a part of women’s experience with HIV,” Falvey said.
In a domestic violence context, bringing up wearing a condom can be a problem for women. “Some women cannot negotiate safe sex practices because of intimate partner violence,” Blount said.
Christie’s Place hosts one of the oldest support groups in San Diego for women who have suffered from trauma in their life. Many show Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Only in the last National HIV/AIDS Strategy survey published in 2015, these variables were addressed in the approach to the epidemic.
Affected women are disproportionately from minorities and very isolated in impoverished communities. For these women, taking care of their families can obstruct the healthy habits that a HIV patient should comply with.
At Christie’s Place, they have created a community of women who look after one another. “We try to diminish isolation. When people are engaged and connected in community, being healthy and feeling hopeful are much more possible,” Falvey said. The organization is based out of an old house in Bankers Hill, with spaces for them to hang out, and for the kids to play.
One out of eight people in San Diego who have HIV don’t know it. Making people aware of their HIV status is, according to Loose, one of the challenges for the future. Fear and stigma are among the reasons why people who are at risk of HIV don’t get tested.
“Oh, boy. Stigma,” Blount said. “It is still a very huge reason why people are not retained in care.” She has experienced it first-hand. “I have been talked about in my community, ‘don’t touch that person, what are you trying to do, give them HIV, too?’
“The way we combat stigma is to empower women to share their status. If a woman can become empowered enough to accept and be OK herself and with her status, that fights stigma right there,” said Blount, who has been an advocate since she was diagnosed in 1995.
Peer navigators, such as Blount, work for the nonprofit guiding women who have been diagnosed recently through their first steps into the disease. “My job is to engage and retain women in care by addressing barriers in their life like child care, transportation, food, immigration status. … We are not telling them what to do, we are walking with them in their journey,” she said.
“It aligns the skills and talents of women living with HIV who walk in their shoes to say, ‘look at me, I’m living with HIV, I’m healthy, I live a very productive life, you can do that, too,’” Falvey concluded.
Christie’s Place is funded by public and private foundations as well as private donors and has no cost for their clients.
—María José Durán is a freelance writer from San Diego. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.