For Tenderloin's homeless HIV/AIDS patients, health center offers an oasis of care
By Crystal Sykes
To most people walking near the Civic Center station, this little health center sitting between an alley way and sandwich shop wouldn’t attract a second glance; but to people like Gregory Sherren, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, this place is a lifesaver.
“They’re trained professionals here,” said Sherren. “If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would be here—but now I know I won’t die of AIDS.”
Created in July 2006 from a merger of the Continuum HIV Day Services and the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center, Tenderloin Health’s mission has always been to improve the health of the Tenderloin’s underserved homeless, poor and most vulnerable residents by offering AIDS/HIV services that would be difficult to obtain elsewhere.
San Francisco’s Tenderloin, also known as the “TL,” covers only 60 blocks, yet is home to nearly 11% of the city’s population, including a quarter of the city’s homeless. It has the highest concentration of residents in poverty, nearly 70% as of 2009.
According to Tenderloin Health, the TL is at the epicenter of new AIDS cases in San Francisco, particularly among injection drug users, men who have sex with other men, and male-to-female transgendered residents. A 2009 report from the city’s Department of Public Health says that nearly 10% of HIV/AIDS patients were homeless at the time they were diagnosed.
“This center is really an asset to people,” says Sherren, who was referred to Tenderloin Health several years ago. “It’s a resource. There was no education of HIV when I got it. Everyone just thought it was a ‘gay disease.’”
“The people I was around were thieves, dope dealers and robbers,” says Sherren, who is six years sober from a four decade long heroin addiction. “We’d all get high together and soon have intimate relationships. We never wore rubbers. It just seemed suspicious. Like an insult.”
Diagnosed in Prison
Sherren was diagnosed with HIV while in custody of San Quentin State Prison. “The way they told me was by saying ‘Roll up, they’re moving you and you’ll find out when you get there,” he said. “When we got to the hospital and I asked again, they said ‘You got tested for AIDS, right?’ That was when I got the hint.”
After being released from prison, Sherren sought the help of Tenderloin Health where he was set up with various medications that he needed for his illness. He’s also being supplied with housing through affiliates of the center and is hoping to move into a more permanent residence soon.
Tenderloin Health also offers programs in health promotion and prevention, dental care, in-house nursing, substance abuse counseling, syringe exchange and other services.
“I would say in this area we provide much needed services,” says David Fernandez, who joined Tenderloin Health as executive director in late 2009. “We’re pretty much the only breath of service in the area—probably the city.”
The non-profit organization collaborates with other agencies, referrals and sheriff departments regular in order to find more people in need.
“Here, we practice what is called the ‘harm reduction philosophy,’” explains Fernandez. “We meet the client wherever they are in life. This means that someone with a substance abuse problem is not required to stop doing drugs to work with us. We want to help the client where they are right at the moment of seeking help.”
'One-Stop Shop' Service
Tenderloin Health also serves patients’ emotional and behavior needs and employs social workers with various types of cultural and social backgrounds.
“We’re a one-stop shop,” says Fernandez.
“We used to have a community center where people can come but it was cut in 2009,” says Fernandez. “But still, we create a community of residents. It’s been around a long time. Everyone knows about Tenderloin Health.”
Both men feel that Tenderloin Health has greatly enriched the community in the neighborhood by spreading education and health to the district.
“This place is really an asset,” repeats Sherren, “People got to the point where they couldn’t get out of bed. Now, they started winning things back instead of losing everything.”