President, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Member, Coalition to Preserve LA
At its heart, AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s (AHF) is a social justice organization. Over the past three decades, our fight has centered on health disparities of people living with AIDS and other infectious diseases. Over the course of this battle, AHF has taken on many related issues including racism, gender inequality, immigration policies and various kinds of stigma. Our mission, “Cutting Edge Medicine and Advocacy Regardless of Ability to Pay,” transcends what takes place in an exam room or a test site. Holistic health embraces the totality of what is required to keep someone healthy. Protecting the public health in a broad context involves embracing a person’s full humanity.
Last year, AHF launched a ballot measure effort to remove the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi flag. We did so because the biggest burden we face as a medical provider in Mississippi is stigma against HIV/AIDS. And nothing is more stigmatizing than a hateful symbol of slavery.
AHF participates yearly in gay pride parades. What does that have to do with providing medical care to HIV patients? The discrimination and bias toward LGBT individuals is a major contributor to the elevated rates of HIV and STDs in their communities.
For the last three years, AHF has been running a campaign called “AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue,” focusing on the disproportionate impact of HIV among African-Americans. We proudly march in Martin Luther King Day parades across the country.
AHF staff in South Africa play a leading role in highlighting rape and violence against women and the role it plays in the spread of HIV. For several years, we have led a day of silent protest where women cover their mouths with tape to highlight the silence about the rape epidemic in that country.
After AHF’s leading doctor in Sierra Leone, Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, died of Ebola while heroically treating patients under terrible conditions, AHF began an international advocacy campaign to change public health policies. In 2015, AHF sponsored a float in the Pasadena Rose Parade saluting Ebola first-responders.
The question then becomes: How does the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative fit with all of these other battles?
First, Los Angeles is the birthplace of AHF. This is our international headquarters. We have grown from a local hospice provider in 1987 to be the largest AIDS organization in the world serving more than 600,000 patients in 15 states and 36 countries. We employ 3,400 staff people, including hundreds of nurses and doctors worldwide. We have a budget of $1.3 billion.
Our staff and clients are suffering because of the changes that are taking place in Los Angeles. More and more of our patients are homeless. Our staff cannot afford to live close to where they work and sit in snarled traffic for hours every day. The diversity that is the beautiful tapestry of Los Angeles that we treasure is being diminished. We have witnessed over the last fifteen years how San Francisco, where we have testing, treatment and thrift stores, has become a rich ghetto. Low-income people by the tens of thousands have been displaced. We don’t want that to happen here.
Gentrification is a social justice issue that plays out in the same way as income inequality. All the privileges are going to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle-income people. Affordable housing is torn down to make way for luxury towers. Stable, diverse communities are being displaced by expensive condos, trendy shops and costly restaurants and bars. This is not progress–it is displacement.
Homelessness is a public health issue. It is a challenge for the homeless to take care of themselves. Making appointments, taking medicine everyday and prioritizing wellbeing is a nightmare for the homeless. Homelessness leads to the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Homelessness in Los Angeles is at epidemic levels. Tearing down low-rent apartments and hiking rents is feeding the beast.
Traffic gridlock is a quality of life and an environmental issue. Mass transit in Los Angeles is not a viable alternative for many people. Therefore, the closer they can live to where they work the better their lives will be. Building luxury mega developments is pushing more and more working people out of the city center and extending their commutes. Creating truly affordable housing in urban areas will improve the quality of life for everyone.
AHF is a very important stakeholder in Los Angeles. Non-profit organizations are critical to the fabric of life here and across the globe. Civil society should have every bit as much to say about civic issues as any developer, politician or private corporation. In fact, their opinion—unbiased by greed—is even more important.
AHF receives no benefit from our opposition to over-development in Los Angeles. In fact, it will be a very tough fight. However, we have never shied away from taking a stand on something we believe in. In this place where we were born, that we love and have thrived in for three decades, we must take a stand against the unmitigated greed and corruption that will forever change Los Angeles from a welcoming place to one that is only for the privileged. It would be irresponsible for AHF to simply stand by and let that happen.