In 2005, First Congregational Church staffer John Harkless was living on the street and addicted to drugs and alcohol. It was around that time that Harkless was diagnosed with HIV.
"After I learned I was HIV-positive, I really didn't even do the follow-up. I wouldn't even go get my medication," said Harkless, who now lives and works at the church.
It's people like Harkless that Friends for Life aims to help as it breaks ground on a $1.7 million, 10-unit permanent housing facility in Midtown for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. Called Aloysius New Beginnings, the shelter will complement Friends for Life's existing 15-unit facility.
Friends for Life executive director Kim Daugherty would not reveal the new or existing shelter's address to protect clients' privacy.
Friends for Life's new shelter falls in line with Mayor A C Wharton's "Action Plan to End Homelessness," which was released last week. The plan outlines several strategies for dealing with the city's homeless, including providing a minimum of 80 permanent housing units for homeless people with HIV/AIDS over the next five years.
"In our community, about 14 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS are homeless right now," Daugherty said. "National statistics indicate that nearly half of all people living with HIV/AIDS will at one point have their housing in jeopardy. It's a financial issue. Health care is expensive."
Daugherty estimates that, on average, medicine for a person living with HIV/AIDS is about $5,000 a month, and many patients don't have a way to pay for their medication.
"If you work and have health care, that's great. But you have to be healthy to keep working," Daugherty said. "When a person isn't healthy anymore, they have to convince the government that they're disabled, and that isn't easy. And then there can be lag time before a person receives a disability benefit from Medicare or Medicaid."
Harkless agrees that the high cost of HIV medication can be an issue for some, but in his case, he said he was more concerned with "drinking and drugging" than seeking treatment. It took being hospitalized for a life-threatening kidney infection for Harkless to acknowledge that he needed help.
"I got connected with Friends for Life and realized that my health was going down. I was playing Russian roulette with my life," Harkless said.
At the time, Harkless was pressing clothes at a dry cleaners during the day and sleeping in a car or an abandoned house at night.
"Every day was a hardship, trying to get myself going. My life had no order," Harkless said.
He attended Friends for Life's Wellness University, a support group for people with HIV/AIDS, to learn more about the virus. Friends for Life placed Harkless in a temporary shelter and helped him obtain medication. Soon after that, Harkless landed a job at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young, and he was able to move into a room there.
"I know a number of guys who have lived in the Friends for Life apartments," Harkless said. "They're really nice apartments, and it's a wonderful thing for people who don't have access to housing."
Daugherty said the new shelter should be completed by July.