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The Pride Issue

Where Do SA’s HIV-positive Homeless Go?

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Carson House’s homey exterior

It’s raining ... well, cats and dogs ... outside the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, and I say so to the clients who are chatting in one of the hallways. “Is it raining men?” a gentleman in a wheelchair retorts, and waves disappointedly at the answer. 

The residents at the SAAF house are here for skilled nursing care and still in many cases, hospice. But as the disease has changed with earlier detection and new drug regimens, so has SAAF’s mission, which includes outpatient care, prevention and education, and mobile testing. And a few blocks from SAAF’s Grayson Street headquarters, the organization operates Carson House, a transitional residence for homeless HIV-positive individuals. 

“These are the healthier HIV patients,” says SAAF Executive Director David Ewell, but they have no place to live and often come with heavy baggage: addiction, poor or no work history, criminal records, mental-health issues. The program’s goal is to enable residents to move into their own homes by helping them save money, budget expenses and get jobs or Supplemental Security Income for disabled adults.

“Nobody judges here,” Regina Villalobos, SAAF marketing director, says. “That makes anybody feel good.” 

Residents must sign a contract and are allowed to stay only 90 days—once discharged, they can’t return for at least a month. While they live at Carson House, they can eat three meals a day at SAAF and use other onsite services. Case workers visit regularly, and nursing staff are just around the corner.

SAAF also runs a tenant rental-assistance program through the City of San Antonio, which can provide up to 30 months of financial support while a former Carson House resident is building a new life. 

The doors lock at 9 p.m. each night, and drugs are not allowed on the property, but SAAF won’t evict addicts who can’t get sober. Ewell says SAAF is a “harm-reduction agency. We’re going to meet them where they’re at.” 

“We’re realistic,” Villalobos adds. “We would like to get people off of drugs ... but you can’t change people overnight.”

Manager Mark Castillo recalls an especially inspiring client, who came to Carson House “determined to quit those drugs as soon as he walked through the door.” The man had been employed at a daycare center, but was reluctant to return to his old job because his two front teeth had been knocked out, remembered Castillo. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Most of [the kids] probably don’t have front teeth.’” SAAF helped him replace his teeth through its oral-health program, and he found a place at Oxford House, a sober-living community. He also got his job back. 

Ewell estimates that even though Carson House residents face significant hurdles, 60 percent of its clients have been able to find housing.

The two-story house is wrapped in a generous front porch and balconies, and the yard is filled with well-tended palms, small trees and rose bushes. It’s located between Fort Sam and the Pearl residential and retail development, just outside historic Government Hill, and those balconies provide a leaf-framed picture of Downtown to the south. The impersonal front door is the only obvious clue that this house is different from its pretty neighbors.

The Pride Issue 2014
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