Tabor House Marks 20 Years Of Helping Homeless Men With AIDS
By STEVEN GOODE
January 02, 2011
Rafael Avilas figures that nothing good would have happened to him if he hadn't gotten into Tabor House five years ago.
"I'd still be using drugs," he said. "I'm sure of that. So I would be a high risk to end up in jail, or maybe dead."
Before coming to Tabor House, where he lives with six other men, Avilas, 55, had spent much of the previous 25 years homeless and addicted to drugs.
He tells a traumatic story that began in 1982 when he learned that he was HIV-positive. At the time he was a police officer in Puerto Rico with a pregnant wife at home. Avilas said his diagnosis brought him shame and questions about his sexuality and whether he used drugs. He was afraid that he might have infected his wife and unborn child. It was too much to bear, he said.
"I abandoned my family. I thought I was going to die, so I ran away," he said. "I became homeless and tried to overdose on drugs, but that didn't work. Three days later I was hooked."
Tabor House, created by the Sisters of St. Joseph, is marking its 20th anniversary this year. The two-family house on Brownell Avenue opened in the city's Frog Hollow neighborhood as a refuge for men like Avilas: homeless outcasts with AIDS, a deadly disease caused by the HIV virus that's often accompanied by guilt, panic, misunderstanding and isolation.
The organization's mission in the early days was to provide some comfort and a dignified, if not happy, death. In the house's first four years, 24 residents died of the disease.
"In the beginning, they literally came to die," said Sister Anne Kane, director of Tabor House. "We tried to provide an atmosphere of peace. Convalescent homes weren't taking them in and their families were afraid. These people were shunned; they had no place to go."
But with advances in medicine and therapies, people with HIV/AIDS are now living longer, so the focus at Tabor House has changed.
Today it's on maintaining health through a variety of behavioral group therapy sessions offered to residents. For those with substance abuse issues, the house provides referrals to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Medictions are dispensed to residents, who set their own goals with a case manager. They are also encouraged to return to school or learn a skill.
The ultimate goal, which usually takes a couple of years to accomplish, is to have clients leave the house and re-enter society. But no one is ever moved out before they're ready.
"Now a happy ending is they move out," Kane said.
Chris Ryan is among those who have.
Ryan, 47, said his goal when he was accepted to the program was to get counseling, save money and restore his health before moving out on his own. Ryan achieved that goal in two years and has been out on his own for three.
"It gave me another shot at life," Ryan said. "Without it I believe I would probably be dead."
Since leaving the house, Ryan has found a job with a property management company in Hartford, lives independently and has stayed drug-free. He credits Tabor House with helping him regain his health and is proud of doing the rest himself.
"Once you get healthy, you have to go to the next step. They can only do so much for you," he said.
For some, like Robert Butler, finding work and financial independence is hard.
Butler, 52, of Stamford, lives in a second Tabor House that opened on Maple Avenue about 10 years ago. He shares the three-family house with five other men and has been there about a year.
"I don't know what I did to deserve this chance," Butler said.
Butler said the staff has helped him learn what a "normal" life is. He has spent more than half his adult life in prison, mostly on burglary convictions and parole violations.
Butler said Tabor House has helped him adjust to freedom, but his long prison record, age and the poor economy have kept him from finding work so far. So Butler goes to AA meetings and church, looks for work and takes part in other leisure activities. He hopes to get a job as a truck driver and ultimately hopes to become a minister.
Avilas, a disabled Army veteran, won't be going back to work. But because he receives benefits for his disability he has been able to save money and has put in an application for an apartment.
"I may be able to leave," he said. "Not because I want to, but to offer the opportunity [to come here] to someone else who needs it."
Sister Gertrude Lanouette of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit manages both residences for the Sisters of St. Joseph. The experience has been an drastic change for Lanouette, who was an administrator at a Catholic school in Massachusetts before coming to Hartford in September 2009.
But it has also been an uplifting one as she has seen how hard the men are willing to work and how badly they want to change their lives.
"They're really trying to lead normal lives and get their lives together," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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