Housing, medical care top concerns for long-term survivors in San Francisco

The face of HIV is getting older and our community of people over age 50 living with HIV in San Francisco grows every year. Between 2012 and 2015, the proportion of people living with HIV increased from 52% to 60%. By the end of 2015, there were nearly 10,000 people living with HIV over age 50 in San Francisco—a number that will likely continue to rise as people live longer with increasingly effective HIV therapies. 

Policy makers, city officials, health care providers and community programs are taking note—and stepping up—with innovative programs to serve this segment of our community. Ward 86 and UCSF, at Zuckerberg General Hospital, launched the Golden Compass medical care program for people over age 50 with HIV in January of this year. A local ballot measure, the “Dignity Fund,” passed in late 2016, ensuring funding for community programs and services for older adults with disabilities and chronic medical conditions (including HIV). At San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network is providing social and emotional support for an increasing number of community members.

“This may be the only generation that needs these kinds of services,” said Vince Crisostomo, the program manager of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. “Someone who gets HIV in their 20s now might not ever get a disabling HIV diagnosis if they are on medications. That’s really different than what happened to my generation. It’s really wonderful that there has been this investment—at the foundation and at other organizations around the city—in taking care of people aging with HIV.”

Crisostomo said that housing, health conditions, health insurance, legal concerns, social isolation and employment are issues that the long-term survivors in his group oftentimes cite as top concerns—and take the time to discuss as a group or one-on-one. Although there are no easy solutions for many of these issues, Crisostomo said that simply having a time and place to talk about the difficult times in life can help ease anxiety and fear and improve people’s outlook on life. 

“Now, some people are grappling with the question, ‘Do I still belong here in San Francisco?’” said Crisostomo. “There’s no easy answer. Housing is so expensive and unaffordable here in the city, so people start to think about leaving. But health care services for people living with HIV are better here than in other places. But people do start to think, maybe this isn’t the place for me anymore.”

The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network meets once a week for a Wednesday evening dinner, and also hosts a variety of social and learning events. A new event starting this year will help group members explore grief and loss.

“This won’t be just about, ‘I lost all my friends to AIDS,’” said Crisostomo. “There are other losses that happen in life. We want to think about—how are we dealing with this? It might be grief or a sense of loss over what you may not accomplish in life. There’s a kind of grief that comes with that realization.” 

In May, the group hosted a free tenant rights “bootcamp” in collaboration with AIDS Legal Referral Panel, to educate attendees about housing rights, evictions and requesting reasonable accommodations. The group also works closely with other San Francisco AIDS Foundation programs, including Positive Force, to help clients access services for HIV care and other medical services.

There are inspiring stories of hope and resilience that come from the group. 

One long-time group participant, Mick Robinson, recently finished a nine-month internship to become a peer counselor, and already has a job lined up with a mental health care agency in the city. This year, Robinson also found improved housing at Openhouse—a brand-new, LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing complex for seniors.

“Life can’t get much better,” said Robinson. “I moved in January, after getting lucky with the housing lottery for 55 Laguna [the address of Openhouse]. Vince is the one who convinced me to apply. He said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ I was worried that my housing voucher wouldn’t transfer to my new apartment, but it did.”

“It was so moving, to see him settling into his new place. And then to see him be so happy,” said Crisostomo. “Some people think they don’t deserve to be happy—and to see him work through that, it was amazing.”

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