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Trevon Millard, Las Vegas Review-Journal: Complex caters to HIV, AIDS patients, makes living affordable

[seniors’ housing] Complex caters to HIV, AIDS patients, makes living affordable
by Trevon Millard, August 11, 2011

Ingrid Holm-Garibay and just one of her friends are still alive.

The others, like many diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s, didn’t last long enough for the medications now available to prolong life.

But HIV medications create another constant struggle. They can easily cost thousands of dollars a month, not counting the cost of other drugs needed to temper the common side effects of diarrhea, migraines, vomiting and insomnia.

“I juggle my bills, paying electricity this month, gas the next,” she said, because cutting out her medications isn’t an option. “It’s terrible, horrible.”

Holm-Garibay, a 53-year-old cashier, can only work part-time because of her weakened condition, meaning she has no health insurance through her job.

“Your full-time job becomes living,” said Holm-Garibay, who was diagnosed in 1987 with HIV, which she contracted from her now deceased husband. She can’t obtain private insurance because of her pre-existing condition.

Her life is absent of amenities. Discretionary income is a dream. But that will soon change. She and 19 others with HIV or AIDS are moving into a renovated, affordable development in Las Vegas after a ribbon-cutting ceremony today .

“We can put food on the table and feel good about ourselves, have dignified living,” said Holm-Garibay, whose rent will be based on income and subsidized by federal funds.

A PLACE TO CALL HOME

Tenants “can’t wait” to move in, said Jennifer Morss, executive director of the nonprofit Aid for AIDS of Nevada, AFAN, the group taking over the mix of eight single-bedroom cottages, three dormitory-style pods of four bedrooms each, and a clubhouse. The previous landlord, Caminar, left Nevada a year and a half ago.

In the meantime, the abandoned development at a location that won’t be publicized for the safety of residents had fallen into disrepair. Bums were squatting in the courtyard, holes marked the walls and trash littered the grounds, said housing coordinator Bobby Townsend.

He, with others, has spent the summer repairing the building and landscaping the grounds, turning it into a place he could call home.

Living spaces are modest in size, but walls are painted in warm colors, kitchens are outfitted with granite countertops, and rooms are filled with furniture donated by World Market Center. A central courtyard features outdoor artwork, aromatic spices and trees.

When the renovations started, the buildings were sterile, the walls were painted a dull eggshell white and had no trimmings, like a hospital. It was “kind of like a place to go to die,” Townsend said.

For those with AIDS, hospitals don’t signify a return to good health, he said.

“You think, ‘Am I going to get better and leave, or just leave?’ ” he said. “You have no immune system.”

FINDING ACCEPTANCE

Townsend’s arms are enveloped in ink. The tattoos aren’t skulls, snakes or anything sinister. They evoke smiles, telling his story in his language.

The red furry head of Animal, the drummer from the Muppets, peeks below his sleeve. He pulls it up to reveal the whole gang on his upper arm. Kermit’s head, the first Muppet inked into his skin, sits at the front. Townsend’s nickname used to be Frog.

He stretches his T-shirt collar down to reveal a red ribbon staining the skin over his heart.

“Everyone accepts it their own way. This is mine,” he said. “HIV made its mark.”

Acceptance didn’t come easily.

“I said they were liars. Made them run the test five times,” he said, recalling the day he was diagnosed with HIV, which has since become AIDS. “January 22, 2010.”

“I was told I wouldn’t make it to February of that year,” he said. “But I’m still here.”

That doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods.

“I’m fine now. Ten minutes from now it could be a disaster,” he said, noting that it takes him a month to get over the flu because of his weak immune system.

HIV also attacks the digestive system. He can’t eat beef. Just tofu and salads, organic vegetables.

“In here, everyone will understand what everyone’s going through,” he said.

The housing development isn’t sequestering those with HIV or AIDS like some sort of leprosy camp. It’s bringing them together for mutual support, building a family.

“The first month is the worst. You think life’s over. The world hates you,” Townsend said about the diagnosis. “You know what, life can go on, and there are a lot of people here for you.”

People are eager to get in, he said.

“There’s actually hope. It’s a safe place, a home,” he said.

To keep it safe, the address must be kept confidential, said Morss, stating that those with HIV are still victims to the stigma sticking to the virus.

AFAN also will provide services to tenants similar to those offered to their 3,500 clients in Nevada also diagnosed with HIV, most of which are in Clark County. Group counseling will be offered in the clubhouse. Arts and crafts store Michaels has donated 30 canvases.

“Take that upsetness and anger and put it into art,” Townsend said.

A community garden has been established with soils developed by gardeners from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That will also help with bills because those with HIV must eat organic vegetables. Their digestive systems can’t handle pesticides.

AFAN is basically doing everything it can to make tenants’ lives as carefree and normal as possible, Townsend said.

“But there’s not 30 seconds in my mind where I forget I have AIDS,” he said. “In a weird way though, I’m glad I have AIDS. It made me wake up.”

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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