For the past 20 years, the Burgdorf clinic at the Hartford Health Department has been the place where those in the city's predominantly black North End have gone to be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
That run almost ended this year, as the city's budget difficulties had targeted the clinic for closing. Only because of the eleventh-hour intervention of community AIDS activists and educators, with the assistance of a few state lawmakers, was the money found to keep the clinic operating for another year.
The fact that a long-standing city program that provided HIV counseling and testing was threatened with closing was a sign of the economic times and a reflection of the overall drop in new HIV cases in the state and the fact that HIV/AIDS prevention and program funding is based on competitive grants. Many who are battling AIDS say they are frustrated that programs that serve the city's black population are rapidly drying up.
As if to put an exclamation point on the argument, officials from the state Department of Public Health announced Wednesday that nearly $25,000 in funding for the needle exchange programs in Hartford and New Haven and another $395,000 in funding that those cities use to pay for dental care, outpatient care, housing and food stipends for people living with the disease have been cut for fiscal 2009. Those cuts would affect the two cities that have the largest HIV-affected populations in the state.
In Hartford, an estimated 2,055 people are living with HIV/AIDS, followed by New Haven, which has 1,550, according to state Department of Public Health records.
The threatened Burgdorf clinic closing and the proposed state cuts occurred as black communities nationwide are encountering stark funding difficulties in combating AIDS infections, according to a study released this week by the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute.
The study, titled "Left Behind — Black America, A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic," says, in part, that even as HIV infection in parts of back America continues to worsen, the response of the U.S. is "timid."
It says the U.S. government has vigorously confronted the global epidemic, but has not addressed the problem at home, where the number of cases — approximately 500,000 or more — mirrors the problem in countries such as Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.
Both countries are among the 15 nations receiving funds from the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. The United States has given about $15 billion to the nations the plan has helped in the past five years.
"I have been struck by the continued lack of awareness of the impact of HIV/AIDS on African Americans," said Renee White, a professor at Fairfield University who has studied the matter. "This racial disparity is not new, by any means. HIV has been one of the top three causes of death for young African American women for years. While conversations regarding the impact of the pandemic on blacks must occur within African American communities, it's pretty obvious that, in addition, policy-makers and public figures of all [racial and ethnic] backgrounds should be aware of this troubling trend."
White said it is sometimes easier for Americans to deal with problems abroad, and they sometimes forget the people at home who are affected.
"I was struck by how many average Americans interpreted the report as proof of moral and behavioral failings among African Americans. This couldn't be any further from the truth."
Some AIDS activists in Hartford who are familiar with the situation say that the problem of reduced funding in the black community has existed for some time.
Prevention services a decade ago were readily available in the North End through the city's health department and the Urban League of Greater Hartford. Now the Urban League is out of the picture and new programs are scarce, say Danielle Warren-Dias, an educator for the UConn Health Center and Bernadette McCloud-Brown, an AIDS educator for AIDS Project Hartford.
"We don't have a for-us-by-us situation. We won't go after the funding. The National Urban League came together for the HIV Awareness Day," Warren-Dias said, unlike locally, where the Urban League of Greater Hartford "had been one of the pillars of our community, but they don't, won't go after the funds." "If it weren't for the few watchdogs that we have, the African American community definitely would fall off the radar. There is a disparity in the accessibility, and it's our fault, too. There was a national mandate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test African Americans, but that didn't happen," Warren-Dias said.
In Hartford, 38 percent of the people living with AIDS are African American, and 40 percent are of Hispanic decent. Of all funding for HIV/AIDS prevention programs being distributed in Hartford, about one-third of those receiving services are black, said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health.
Some activists and health providers say they see programs expanding in Hartford's Hispanic community because it has a stronger infrastructure of community-based organizations vying for the funding.
"When you look at the proportion of services on the south side of Hartford, compared to the north side, it doesn't break out evenly," said Angelique Croasdale, an HIV program manager for the Hartford Health Department. In the North End, there are two sites that provide HIV treatment and prevention services, compared with five in the South End.
"We don't have a strong African American-based agency advocating for services in the North End. All that is going to rest on the [entire] community to take action," Croasdale said. "The mobilization won't come from the African American community. It takes an eye-opening experience. Most affected are poor people dealing with housing, employment, the penal system — a lot of things that are factors that take precedence over health," she said.
Some activists are doing advocacy work on their own without the assistance of big programs. Cece Jones started Sing for Change in 2005 when she graduated from the Yale Divinity School. She said she was compelled to start something when she learned that black women were being infected at alarming rates.
"I know I had to respond. I couldn't wait for a class or a certification," said Jones, 28, who also works for the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition. "There is a lack of urgency. There is an apathy. If we don't do it, no one else will. It's not enough to complain," she said.
Jones said she uses the best of her talents as a singer and worship leader to recruit other Christian musicians to take their ministry into churches. So far, Sing for Change has done ministries in Hartford, Bridgeport and New London, and it is hoping to do other programs in New Haven. "AIDS isn't a racial thing. It's a cultural thing. ... Many have died, but we are still alive."
Latoya Bryant reaches out to the teens when she isn't working at AIDS Project Hartford. For her, it's also not just a job, but a mission.
Now, 30, Bryant has been living with HIV for 12 years. The reduction in funding and apparent shifting of programs to other racial and ethnic groups makes her angry, she said.
"If I'm homeless and on drugs, I might not keep a doctor's appointment. A lot of people who need to be tested won't if they move the testing sites."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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