Have you met BABES? HIV & homelessness meet their match

Written by Brenda Higgins, a Peer Advocate with BABES Network – YWCA, a sisterhood of women facing HIV together.

July is National HIV Awareness Month and we want to recognize the bravery of women living with HIV and facing many other challenges including homelessness. 

Brenda Higgins, a Peer Advocate with BABES Network - YWCA is HIV + and experienced homelessness in her past
Brenda Higgins, a Peer Advocate with BABES Network – YWCA is HIV + and experienced homelessness in her past

I was homeless, abusing substances and making very poor choices when I was diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in May of 2007. I thought being homeless was hard enough, but receiving an HIV+ diagnosis while homeless was completely unbearable. My diagnosis did not stop my behaviors right away, for a short period of time I continued to take myself further and further down and in a completely life-threatening and self-destructive manner. I always did what I could to convince myself that I would never contract HIV and, that “It will never happen to me”; almost an invincible type of attitude. Yes, I knew HIV existed, but, I was ignorant to the fact that there were so many new medications and that people were living healthy, productive lives with HIV.

I was tested at Spokane Regional Health District. The day that I was given my results, was a very difficult day. I was alone. I had nowhere to go. I had no one to turn to. I could have stayed and participated in the results consultation/counseling, but the first thing that came to my mind was “I really need to get out of here!” I felt as though the walls were closing in on me and I ran.

My first encounter with an HIV/AIDS Service Provider was at CHAS – Community Health Center of Spokane. I went in because I thought I was going to just waste away and die; I was so terrified and had no idea what to expect. I soon learned from CHAS – Community Health Center of Spokane that HIV is manageable and, during the same visit I was also told that we were going to forego Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) at this time because of the fact that I was homeless and not living a healthy lifestyle. I had no stability and not at all a full understanding of what being HIV+ really meant. After a couple of months of being completely lost, something inside of me said that it was time to make changes. I realized that if I did not make any attempts to take care of myself and build a better life; I was not going to be around for much longer (not only because I was positive, also because of the lifestyle I was living).

I moved back to Western Washington and placed myself in the Everett Gospel Mission Women and Children’s Shelter. One week later I went to Catholic Community Services to apply for housing assistance, and through this amazing organization; I was referred my wonderful, HIV savvy internal medicine doctor: Dr. Dreyer with The Everett Clinic. I also entered myself into an out-patient recovery program at Evergreen Manor. Even after these attempts to better my stability, Dr. Dreyer and I both agreed that it was still too soon to start Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) because I did not have adequate housing and it was too early in my recovery.  I am so grateful for Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA); this program provides the funding that makes it possible for Catholic Community Services to provide the financial assistance that afforded me to be placed into my own apartment within the next month.  Within six months I was on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) thanks to all my forward progress including the fact that I was stable, mainly in housing, but also because of each and every attempt that I made to better my quality of life.

It was shortly after that that I met the wonderful women of BABES Network – YWCA at the Seattle AIDS Walk in September, 2007.  I was overjoyed that I now knew that there were other women out there just like me.  BABES Network – YWCA heightened my spirit, my drive, my self-confidence and aided me in my ability to remain stable.  It was in May of 2010, that Nicole Price (my Peer Counselor; now Program Manager) saw my potential, sent me the job announcement and encouraged me to apply; which is the reason that I am now a Peer Advocate with BABES Network – YWCA and am able to provide referrals and resources to other women that are currently in or have been homeless and in similar situations as myself.

According to a report provided by King County Public Health in June 2009, Facts about HIV/AIDS in Homeless Persons KCPH  (most recent), out of 6283 homeless individuals, 105 had an HIV and/or AIDS diagnosis.  Accessing and remaining in care while homeless, while not impossible; is very difficult to do when you don’t know where you’re laying your head at night, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from and when you do not know if you are even going to make it to see the next day because of unsure and unsafe conditions.  Among the before mentioned and so many other things; HIV is one of the most serious issues that the homeless population has to face.  Intravenous Drug Use (IDU): the sharing or re-use of unclean needles, unsafe sex (mostly for a means to survive on the streets), and the use of recreational drugs that lead to unsafe sexual behaviors are major factors that play a role in the contraction and transmission of HIV and other Sexual Transmitted Infection’s (STI’s).

This is a nationwide issue and something that can be changed through persistence, commitment and with the proper use of advocacy. According to the HIV/AIDS and Homelessness Fact Sheet provided by the National Coalition for the Homeless in July 2009 (again, the most recent), “Preventative and educational programs need to be provided at shelters, soup kitchens, and other locations that are easily accessible and comfortable for homeless people. Currently, many shelters only minimally address HIV/AIDS. Sex and drug use are strictly forbidden at most shelters, so many shelters do not allow outside HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs to openly discuss those topics or to distribute condoms.”

photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/fighthivindc/3076063764/

There are measures that each individual must take in their own care, but when one doesn’t even know where to start, where do they turn when they don’t even have a roof over their head?

July is National HIV Awareness Month. What steps will you take to advocate for an end to HIV and homelessness?

 Additional Resources

Housing Resources for PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS)

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