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Collaboration that serves HIV-positive individuals receives grant

HIV-positive Houstonians may soon have more employment and housing opportunities thanks to a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, which will fund Project Coordination of Resources and Employment.

Project CORE is a collaboration between the Graduate College of Social Work, AIDS Foundation Houston — a nonprofit that offers support services to HIV-positive people — and Avenue 360 Health and Wellness — a federally qualified health clinic that operates in medically underserved communities.

Nike Blue, chief program officer at AIDS Foundation Houston, said housing and supporting HIV-positive individuals is the project’s most important goal.

“If you are HIV-positive and struggling in any of those areas, the likelihood of you being able to maintain your medication adherence decreases gravely,” Blue said. “If you’re not in medical care, the virus in your system and in your body has a very easy chance of making you sick or sicker, and it can kill you without treatment.”

Half of all new HIV infections occur in the South, and Houston has 1,200 to 1,300 new cases a year, according to a UH news release.

“There’s less resources in the South, and of course there’s a lot less health education surrounding (how) HIV is transmitted,” said Escamilla, who helped create S.M.A.R.T. Cougars, a free HIV testing program at UH. “So there’s a lack of knowledge and awareness.”

Escamilla, who also serves as an administrator at Avenue 360, said that another chief aim of the grant is to help HIV-positive individuals achieve viral suppression, in which the virus is undetectable and cannot be transmitted. He said they want patients to be comfortable with their disease and be able to manage it.

“Once people learn how to empower themselves with their health, then they won’t feel so stigmatized, because they know they can’t infect anyone else if their viral load is undetectable,” Escamilla said.

People with HIV are considered to have a disability, Escamilla said. Through their employment training at Project CORE, participants will teach people to advocate for themselves and receive accommodations in the workplace.

“That’s the whole thing: really educating people who are willing and want to work (and) making sure they are aware of their rights and not feel stigmatized about their HIV condition,” Escamilla said. “Of course we want people to disclose in a safe manner, but the people should know their rights in the workforce.”

Funds will go toward providing HIV-positive individuals with employment training and coordination as well as technology development to help share data between the organizations involved, Blue said.

Blue said that the number of HIV infections in Houston has not decreased, like the virus has in other areas, due to Houston’s huge square mileage and its many economically challenged communities.

“We are pretty high up,” Blue said. “A lot of that has to do with our geography. A lot of that has to do with how many people in our city have easy access to quality medical care, quality transportation and education.”

AIDS Foundation Houston estimates that 4,000 Houstonians do not know they have HIV, Blue said. She said that spreading awareness and getting tested for HIV will help end the epidemic.

“If you’re not getting tested— why? What’s the stigma related to why an individual or community isn’t getting tested?” Blue said. “Having those conversations to reduce that stigma and then connecting to the resources that are in your community.”

The Graduate College of Social Work will conduct the evaluation component of Project CORE with assistant professor Samira Ali, Escamilla said. He said they hope to find sustainable funding beyond the grant to continue providing these services.

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