On the eve of World AIDS Day last Friday, Paulette Dampier and Lester Turner, two HIV/AIDS outreach workers, walked down Madison Street just east of Pulaski Road with a satchel full of condoms.
The condoms were stuffed in plastic sleeves six to a packet -all were Trojan brand but in a variety of styles and colors.
The Greater Westside Development Corporation, a non-profit group, sponsored Friday’s effort.
Young people in groups of two and three – exactly who Dampier and Turner wanted to reach – were dropping in and out of the shops on Madison Street.
Dampier and Turner began talking with pedestrians and offered them condoms. Some pedestrians came up to them, but not everyone wanted the condoms.
“I got all the good stuff!” one young man said, holding up a gold watch for sale as he approached Dampier.
“Want a pack of condoms?” Dampier asked him.
“I’m good,” the man replied.
While the number of people diagnosed with AIDS in Chicago has declined since its peak in mid-’90s, advocates say the spread of AIDS, and its precursor, HIV, remains a major problem – particularly among blacks, and especially on the West Side.
In 2005, the AIDS rate among African Americans in Chicago was more than double the rate for whites and Hispanics. West Side neighborhoods such as Austin, East and West Garfield Park and North Lawndale all have higher AIDS rates than Chicago as a whole. Since 1999, an average of 1,255 African Americans have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS each year, according to Yaa Simpson, an epidemiologist with the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Simpson said of any population at risk of contracting HIV or developing AIDS – including men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users and people engaged in heterosexual sex – blacks were more likely than other groups to be affected.
Black females are increasingly at risk, Simpson added. Of the 738 new cases of HIV recorded between 2003 and 2005 in Chicago women, 590 were black women. In terms of ratio -for every two white women diagnosed with HIV, 21 African American women are diagnosed.
“We don’t want people to get the impression that since there was a decline, it’s over,” Simpson warned.
The scope of the problem in Austin and other West Side communities is expansive. Organizations are trying to reach everyone from youths to seniors to ex-offenders returning to the community from prison. The drug and commercial sex trade on the West Side presents their own unique challenges to outreach workers, they note.
Representatives from several West Side organizations dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS said they do not believe prevention messages were reaching people. Many said there were still not enough resources to address the problem.
“Young people don’t think they can be infected,” said Beverly Donely, the director of the Greater Westside Development Corporation and chair of Congressman Danny Davis’s HIV/AIDS Task Force. She recalled a freshman at a South Side high school telling her, “if we haven’t gotten [AIDS] by now, we’re not going to get it.”
Donley added that a lot of people in the community still don’t know what they need to know.
The sentiment was echoed by Edward Snulligan, site supervisor of the Austin office of the Community Outreach Intervention Project (COIP). COIP, founded more than 20 years ago, operates a wide range of programs on the West Side, including street outreach, a needle exchange for intravenous drug users and condom distribution. Snulligan, though, agreed that the message “is not getting out.”
“We need more funding, more recovery houses,” he said.
Some organizations have even cut back their services. According to Adedoyin Ogunsanya, a manager at the Austin-based group Prevention Partnership, for much of 2007, the group was not able to fund its youth peer-health educators. The educators are high school students trained to teach their peers about HIV/AIDS prevention, and are paid $7 to $10 per hour for their time.
The cuts have been restored, and Ogunsanya said Prevention Partnership will have a “constant flow of funding” to maintain seven to 10 peer-health educators.
There are some new initiatives planned for the coming year, the group said.
The Westside Health Authority is also starting HIV/AIDS classes in 2008. The classes will be based on a series of focus groups convened over this past year at the authority’s Austin building.
The focus groups found there was an interest in peer-based programming. They also reveal there is a difficulty in discussing HIV/AIDS, a lack of resources in Austin, and a distrust of the medical system, among other issues. Participants also said they want to reach the formerly incarcerated and combat youth apathy about HIV/AIDS.
Simpson, the city epidemiologist, said one project she is working on is how to attack the high percentage of African Americans infected with HIV or AIDS – nearly 20 percent, according the city’s latest statistics – who do not know how they contracted it.
“If you know how you got it, you can fight to prevent it,” she said.