Every Friday night in an old house on 15th Street in San Francisco, something life-changing happens. As plates are passed and a home-cooked meal is shared, upwards of 20 young men living with or at risk for HIV—many of them lacking stable housing—find a safe space that feels like home. It’s called the DREAAM Project, and it’s giving young black gay, bi, and transgender guys the tools to change their own lives.
Young African-American gay and bisexual men are disproportionately affected by HIV, accounting for more new HIV infections at last count than any other age or ethnic group, according to CDC data [*]. Launched by San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 2012 to help reverse this trend in our community, DREAAM stands for “Determined to Respect and Encourage African-American Men.”
Thanks to funding from the Levi-Strauss Foundation, San Francisco AIDS Foundation had a unique opportunity to conduct focus groups and other research to explore what young gay and bi men of color need and want, and how the foundation could meet those needs. “We were able to build a program that was specifically tailored to the needs of a population as they articulated them to us,” explains Kyriell Noon, the foundation’s director of prevention and client services.
Roughly half the men in the focus groups were HIV positive, and many of them were not in care—and not interested in being in care, Noon recalls. “I sat across the table from a 22-year-old who said, ‘Yeah, I’m not really worried about HIV. I’ll take meds when I get sick.’” Noon thinks many young people’s perception of HIV disease is incomplete: “They got the message that ‘HIV is a manageable disease, it’s not fatal, you’re not going to die.’ But the other half of that message is, ‘You have to manage it yourself.’ For the young men in our focus groups, on their hierarchy of needs, managing HIV was way, way down at the bottom.”
Making room for HIV prevention and HIV health to become a priority means addressing DREAAM participants’ other needs, as well. In addition to HIV testing and medication adherence support, the program offers supportive social events, individual counseling, and a food bank, as well as case management, which covers everything from assistance navigating medical systems to applying for subsidized housing to building a resume.
DREAAM also helps members of a devastatingly marginalized population respect themselves and find peer support. “They come to the drop-in group because they want to be together, they want to be in community with each other; they know they need it,” says Noon. “They’re forming something that looks like family, and they support each other. It’s fantastic.”
“Out in the world, these young men are seen through a specific lens,” adds Blue Williams, program manager, case manager, and clinical therapist for DREAAM. “They’re seen as black, they’re seen as trouble, they’re seen as someone to be suspicious of, someone to fear. They’re seen as ‘less than.’ When they come to us, we see beyond that. So much of what I do is getting these young men to understand that they have value.”
From this new-found sense of value come countless benefits—something Blue has seen in action. For example, one individual was struggling with his HIV diagnosis and only intermittently adhering to his HIV treatment regimen until DREAAM staff helped him secure a part-time job. “Getting that job changed his outlook,” says Blue. “He became a different person once he knew someone cared about him enough to help him find that opportunity. And that job gave him the chance to take care of himself, instead of having to rely on other people. It was amazing to see that transformation.”
When one DREAAM member’s life improves, everyone sees the results: “They’re seeing each other’s situations get better,” says Noon. “The guys who do extensive case management with Blue, their lives are turning around, and everybody’s noticing: ‘Oh, he got housing? I’m going to talk to Blue, too!’ It’s becoming a norm change around what’s acceptable and what’s possible in this community. It will take time, but we’re seeing it happen, and it’s good.”
To see how one person’s transformation can benefit an entire community, look no further than Mario Royal. A few years ago, Mario found himself using meth and unsure of his HIV status, and he knew he needed to make a change: “I didn’t have a degree, money, or a job, and I was about to lose my housing. I just woke up and said, ‘I don’t want this life for myself anymore.’” He entered himself in rehab and joined Black Brothers Esteem (BBE), the foundation’s long-running program for African-American gay men and other men who have sex with men. “I fell in love with BBE,” says Mario, who began volunteering, helping organize events and health fairs. But he wanted to do even more, and soon he was helping the foundation develop HIV prevention services for young gay men of color—services that would become the DREAAM Project.
Today Mario is no longer a volunteer: He is the program coordinator for DREAAM, a job that often finds him hitting the pavement, connecting with young African-American gay, bi, and trans guys in need of HIV testing and services. His personal "dream project" today is a career helping others help themselves. “Working in public health and knowing that I’m helping change people’s lives and inspiring other black young men—I definitely want to stay in this field. I’m learning something every day,” he says. “I want somebody to come to me in ten years and say, ‘You helped me get off drugs.’ I want somebody to say, ‘You saved my life.’ Because the BBE staff, they did that for me.” (Watch this video to hear Mario tell his own amazing story.)
Up next for DREAAM? On March 22 and 29, the program is hosting Black PLUS, a two-day workshop for African-Americans living with HIV, particularly those newly diagnosed or seeking to re-engage with medical care. (HIV-negative partners and other allies are also welcome.) Last year’s workshop included a record number of young people; Blue hopes to break that record this year, as more people have become aware of the DREAAM Project and its motto: “When you’re here, you’re home.”
Have you seen the DREAAM Project’s impact in our community? Let us know in the comments below! To learn more, visit the DREAAM Project online or contact Blue Williams or Mario Royal at 415-575-0150.
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