Saturday, November 17, 2007
Odds, Ends, and Observations
Out for a Walk - Reality sets in
A few days ago I accompanied Robin and Sarah on a "route" to hand deliver hot meals to people in the program. These people get one hot meal a day - 365 days a year. The route was 10 stops in the Tenderloin district, considered one of the lower income and impoverished districts of San Francisco. It is actually the surrounding blocks around Open Hand, and after being given the safety run down, I was told that this would be quite the experience -they were right.
To begin, the streets of the Tenderloin have at least 3 homeless or very close to homeless people per street. I am accustomed to seeing homeless people from my days in Jersey City and taking the train into NYC, but never to this extent. After asking around it seems like there is a need for shelters and organizations that aid the homeless. That said, it was difficult to walk into nightly hotels to deliver a meal and pass by so many people who could use one as well. Although I had been warned that the living conditions would be adequate at best, I was taken aback when one lady opened the door and the room was simply an old lazy boy chair, a small coffee table, and a dresser. The phenomenon that I was completely unaware of is called - SROs (Single Room Occupancies). At best it's a room with a bed, private bathroom, and a TV to escape reality or pass the time. At worst it's a bug infested room, with no bed, and a bathroom shared by the entire hall. One place had carpets torn and full of stains, a stagnant smell of cigarette smoke, and an electrical box with exposed wires awaiting a potential life threatening tragedy.
The deliveries are met with a polite smile and thank you. Some talk of how much the meal means to them, others are too shy or embarrassed to open the door enough to see their face. After giving a warm meal of beef stew with rice and steamed broccoli to a Spanish woman in her late 50s, I was left wondering what circumstances had led her to this path? My personal pursuit to understand wanted to ask 20 different questions or somehow express my solidarity and concern, but in the 15 seconds it takes to hand a meal over I could only muster a touch of the hand and a "I hope you have a good day" in Spanish. On the walk to the next stop I kept thinking about what I would like to ask her, like was she aware of the different organizations that could help her, but in the middle of my thinking it was already time to ring the next door bell.
It does appear though that something is finally being done. The city of San Francisco is now slowly buying the privately owned SRO hotels and is giving up to 50 year leases to non-profits and church groups to set up SROs that have social programs. We went into one, and it had signs for free TB tests, $10 Flu shots, an eating healthy seminar, as well as a birthday board. These places at least show concern for the person and attempt to address pertinent health issues. In my opinion it is certainly a step in the right direction.
One of the great things about Open Hand is the amazing amounts of volunteers that allow the organization to run as smooth, efficient, and effective as possible. I have met people, like John from the slide show, who have been volunteering here for 20 years! This seasoned veteran is a fixture on the assembly line and brings an open mind and friendly smile to all who come to volunteer or utilize the services of Open Hand. Many of the volunteers have been there over 10 years and all comment on how much a difference the place makes in the community. Also, many of the volunteers are a wealth of knowledge regarding HIV in San Francisco. Whether its discussing their personal stories, such as of losing a partner or why they volunteer, or how the perceptions have changed over the last 10 to 20 years, I gain invaluable information simply talking or being around them. I thank them for their candidness, honesty, and interest in my project.
I am very satisfied and excited about the interviews. My first completed interview was not only inspiring, but it provides a very realistic and insightful perspective on what living with HIV is like in San Francisco. As I have been told several times, San Francisco is the best place in the world to live if you are HIV +, yet there are still hardships that are endured that can be avoided. For instance, the manner in which this man was told by his doctors of his status had lasting effects - no preparation, no counseling, just an "oh by the way..." and then a silent exit out of the room. Also, something that really stayed with me after the interview was the discussion on how faith is involved in this person's life and the changing issues over the last 10 years in San Francisco. This gentleman is a prime example of how non-profits can really help a person through battling not only a "terminal virus" (as he put it) but also the shock and depression that follows testing positive. Furthermore, the depth of the responses attest that HIV is still a vital issue in the United States. With the advent and accessibility of Antiretroviral medication, those with the virus can live typically healthy and longer lives. As a result, the mindset of people in this region, and the government of the US, has relegated HIV to the back burner. It is thought of now as a chronic and treatable disease and not as threatening to society, which is reflected in the gov't's budget cuts for NGOs and NPOs that provide HIV care (specifically, lowering the amount of money provided by the Ryan White Care Act). These issues and more are voiced in the interview, and intriguingly by someone who is both HIV + and works for Open Hand.