Serving Homeless Women with HIV

By Schroeder Stribling, N Street Village Executive Director

More than 30,000 policymakers, health professionals, and community activists from around the world arrived in D.C. on Sunday to share new findings and best practices in the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS at AIDS 2012. Since this international conference began nearly three decades ago, the face of HIV and AIDS has undergone dramatic change. Once a death sentence, the disease has been transformed by new medications in a chronic illness that people can live with rather than die from.  But for our neighbors who are homeless, state-of-the-art drugs aren’t enough to ensure good health.

Homeless women are particularly at risk of contracting HIV disease; they are frequently victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, both of which have been linked to increased likelihood of infection.  Homeless women who struggle with addiction may exchange sex for drugs or money, which increases their risk of exposure.

Today, 16% of the women we serve self-report being HIV positive. To put this alarming number in perspective, the World Health Organization considers a population infection rate of 1% to be an epidemic.

Based on our experience serving the city’s most vulnerable women, we believe an effective strategy for ensuring good health outcomes for homeless women living with HIV must contain the following elements:

  • Integrated Supportive Services and Housing: The women we serve often face a perfect storm of vulnerability, with HIV being just one of many interrelated risk factors that might include joblessness, homelessness, a history of trauma or domestic violence, other chronic health problems, and addiction and mental health issues.  By combining stable housing with on-site support services, including a day center providing for basic needs, a wellness center with primary care and holistic programming, an education and employment center, and mental health and addiction services, N Street Village helps women address the multiple barriers that may prevent them from focusing on their health.
  • Peer Support and Mentorship: Supportive relationships help to combat isolation and despair and promote health and wellness among women.  Our programs are focused heavily on cultivating peer leadership and mentorship. Several of our residents living with HIV work as peer educators in our community, teaching other women about how to protect themselves and talk with their partners and families about the disease.
  • Continuous Care: Our goal is to get women living with HIV into continuous care, which includes regular appointments with doctors and compliance with medication regimens. N Street Village offers primary medical and psychiatric care on-site through Unity Health Care and has additional partnerships with nearby providers. Additionally, our staff works one on one with our clients to help ensure that they understand their doctors’ orders and that they have the knowledge they need to manage their health.

At N Street Village, we believe that healing and hope can spread just like the virus – from person to person. We are looking forward to sharing our experiences next week with our partners from across the city and around the world. We invite you to join the conversation.

The International AIDS Conference runs July 22nd through July 27th at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For more information on conference happenings and community events, please visit http://www.aids2012.org.

About nstreetvillage

N Street Village is a community of empowerment and recovery for homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. With comprehensive services addressing both emergency and long-term needs, we help women achieve personal stability and make gains in their housing, income, employment, mental health, physical health, and addiction recovery.
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