HIV/AIDS Organization Spotlight: Hispanic AIDS Forum
June 9, 2012
In TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Organization Spotlight series, we focus on some of the true unsung heroes of the HIV community: the organizations that support and provide services for individuals living with, or at risk for, HIV. We profile some of the best in the U.S. and learn how they got started, what challenges they face and what's in store for them in the future.
This week, we turn our sights on New York City, N.Y., and Hispanic AIDS Forum (HAF). According to the New York City Department of Health, more than 107,000 New Yorkers are living with HIV, and thousands more are positive, but don't know it. Among New Yorkers aged 35 to 54, HIV is the third leading cause of death. And in 2010, there were 3,481 new HIV diagnoses, with 1,076 of those in Latino men and women. With such a staggering number of people who need to be reached, it's important to have an organization like Hispanic AIDS Forum, which is at the forefront of providing HIV care and prevention services to thousands of individuals every day.
TheBody.com recently interviewed Heriberto Sanchez-Soto, the executive director of Hispanic AIDS Forum.
Heriberto, can you tell us how you got started with HIV work?
I started by working with youth and children in need of protection or care in residential facilities and whatnot. Soon thereafter I went into the AIDS field -- actually, when it started, in 1985. I have been with Hispanic AIDS Forum for about 13 years.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the Hispanic AIDS Forum got started?
The organization started as a forum -- a group of health care professionals and some local politicians -- concerned that the HIV epidemic would likely spread into the Latino community. Nothing had yet happened to prepare for that possibility.
Their intent initially was to inform policymakers and hope to get a response, in terms of education and some service delivery in the community. Instead, the group was offered the opportunity to incorporate and receive some funding. And so the Hispanic AIDS Forum became the first Latino nonprofit organization fully devoted to HIV and AIDS in the country.
We'll touch back on the Latino aspect in a second. How has the mission changed? Is it different? And what is it today?
It's changed somewhat, but not significantly. At the beginning, again, like I said, the mission of the organization was to educate the Latino community in New York City about the perils of HIV and AIDS, and to influence health policy and funding that would improve the lives of Latinos in New York City.
It remained basically the same mission until I came on board about 13 years ago. The mission now has focused largely on service delivery and trying to deal with all the related issues that are intertwined with HIV, such as hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases [STDs]. So the mission now is to bring about positive health outcomes for Latinos with chronic illnesses, including HIV, hepatitis, cardiovascular disease and so on. But the thrust of the organization remains HIV.
How many people do you serve?
The organization provides a variety of services. So, when we talk about the number of people that we serve, I am speaking about people that receive concrete services from us, as opposed to low threshold community education or condom distribution and that kind of stuff.
In terms of direct services, we serve about 6,500 Latinos and other New Yorkers. Including all the other community education that we do, it would probably be like 40,000.
Wow, that's a lot. Can you tell us a little bit about the services that you offer?
In terms of support, we organize in two core service areas: supportive services and prevention. Supportive services are those that are specifically tailored to people with HIV and other chronic illnesses -- people who are actually living with the disease. They include a rental assistance program, where we provide financial assistance to Latinos or other immigrants who otherwise do not qualify for HASA [HIV/AIDS Services Administration] services; we provide them rental assistant services.
In fact, we started to do this about 11 years ago when there were no housing services, or housing support services, for immigrants in New York City who, at the time and now, represent probably 50 or 60 percent of those affected with HIV. We started a very small program with HOPWA [Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS] funds. Then we were funded to do more substantive services with a bigger HOPWA contract, and we created what is called a sustainable living fund, which now GMAC runs.
Through this process, we were able to convince the Planning Council that they, too, should allocate funding for housing services for immigrants who do not qualify for HASA benefits. And we run that program. That one is called the New York City Rental Assistance Program. Combined, these two contracts probably put out about $7 million in rental assistance to immigrant families who do not qualify for HASA.
We also do, of course, case management services. We do treatment adherence services; a lot of workshops on treatment issues. We do a lot of advocacy work. And we run support groups for those who are living with HIV or hepatitis coinfection.
In terms of prevention services, our prevention services are largely targeted at Latino sexual minorities. We're talking about gay men, Latino gay youth and transgender women. Those services include a very successful HIV testing program, which we view as the point of entry to the organization. So, when people do test with us, we do a thorough risk assessment and they receive testing. If they are diagnosed with HIV, of course, they are linked to the appropriate support services and medical services. If they are found to be at high risk for HIV infection, then we engage them in risk-reduction services. On average, we test about 5,000 people a year.
Where does this all happen?
In our offices in the Bronx and Manhattan, and via some community partners throughout the four boroughs. We do not do much work in Staten Island.
We also do some of the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]-funded behavioral interventions. In our case, we do 3MV [Many Men, Many Voices] and CRCS -- Comprehensive Risk Counseling and Services -- for gay men. And for youth, we do an intervention that we have developed ourselves. It's a peer-based program that is trying to develop sexual health leadership within young people. We take the position that, if we make a serious investment in younger gay people, it will probably have a significant impact on HIV transmission rates and the transmission of other sexually transmitted diseases in New York City. So we put a lot of emphasis on young people.
That is not to say that we neglect older gay men. But the thrust is on younger folks. So we organize our prevention services by age groups: 17 to 24, 25 to 35, and 35 and older.
Then we started the TransLatina program, which is a small program targeting transgenders who are Latinas, male-to-female, in Queens. We provide the same, comparable prevention services there.
Right now our work is shifting. We're doing more holistic work with the Latino gay community. We're trying to move away from continuing to define gay men as vectors of disease. And so HIV is addressed in the context of larger issues concerning both holistic health and sexual health. In that regard, we are doing a lot better. These days, the AIDS epidemic doesn't seem to be that urgent for the greater number of Latinos, or the gay men out there, for that matter.
Would you say there's more HIV stigma in the Latino community?
I've been around the block several times over. I don't subscribe to that kind of thinking. I think that individuals may internalize their conditions in a different way in the Latino community than perhaps in the Asian community, where some people would argue that there's a lot more stigma than there is in the Latino community, or the African community, or the white community.
I think individuals themselves tend to deal with their own life situations in a very peculiar way. And that may, in turn, translate into stigma being directed at them. So, I think it's more internalized than it is projected on them. That's my point of view.
What are the difficulties or benefits of doing HIV work in New York, or specifically the Bronx and Manhattan?
Well, I used to work in New Jersey. Some of the reasons why I decided to leave New Jersey and do this work in New York are due to the sheer numbers and the manner in which New York City deals with issues in a more open way. The opportunities for anonymity in New York City for people who are affected with HIV, I think, lend itself to be able to do more. I think people who are affected by HIV, because of some of these issues, tend to be more receptive, if you will. They turn toward services more so than people in small towns or small cities in the country, again, because of the anonymity.
There's great opportunity for anonymity. So, in that sense, the work seems to be easier to do. I also think that it has a greater impact in the overall picture.
If you look at the boroughs in New York City, I think the same could be said. It is probably easier to do work in Manhattan than it is to do work in Staten Island, or for that matter, in the Bronx. I think the way the larger communities deal with the issue makes it either easier, or a little harder, to do the work.
For us, when we did work in Queens, it was quite challenging. We started this organization by having an administrative office in Manhattan because so many other organizations were doing work in Manhattan. Then we did work in field offices in the Bronx and Queens. Then we did some work with partners in Brooklyn. But what we learned was that the greater number of people in Queens would have preferred to come to the office in Manhattan than to receive services in Queens.
The folks in the Bronx, on the other hand, tend to stay in the Bronx. They tend to be a little bit more parochial, if you will. You know, "I'll stay in the Bronx; I don't want to go into Manhattan." They really didn't have great issues in receiving services in the Bronx. And so we had to open up the office in Manhattan to provide services to those folks from the outer boroughs who were resistant to receiving services in their boroughs. They would still receive services from us, but they would do it in Manhattan.
I do think that the future of this work requires that we begin to deal with HIV in the context of a broader set of health issues, as opposed to the issue that defines an organization, or the issue that defines a client. And that's what we're trying to do.
This article was provided by TheBody.
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