Be Positive You’re Negative: World AIDS Day and Every Day

SARAH THAPPABy Sarah Thappa – Sarah is a member of AIDS United’s AmeriCorps National team with the Washington AIDS Partnership and serves as the HIV Health Promotion Specialist at N Street Village. She does HIV education, counseling, outreach, and testing in addition to health promotion classes on various topics. Sarah hails from Northern Illinois and graduated from Carleton College ‘13 with a B.A. in Biology.

Let’s kick off this post with a pre-reading quiz… 

Which city has the highest rate of HIV?
Accra, Ghana
b. Dakar, Senegal
c. Washington, D.C.
d. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The answer is c. Washington, D.C. The highest concentration of HIV in the world is in Sub-Saharan Africa; however, if Washington, D.C. were a country in Africa, it would rank 24/54 for highest HIV prevalence rates. Ten states account for 2/3 of the HIV diagnoses in 2011, and the South accounted for 48% of those diagnoses.

What percentage of a population infected qualifies as an epidemic?
b. 1.0%
c. 2.0%
d. 5.0%

The answer is b. 1.0% of a population infected with a disease defines as an epidemic. The District of Columbia has a reported 2.7% HIV infection rate, according to the Department of Health.


ProcessThis past Sunday, December 1st, 2013 was the 25th celebration of World AIDS Day. N Street Village has marked the day by discussing HIV and AIDS with its staff and clients and by looking at how the disease directly affects our community.  We honored the many friends and family we have lost to the disease over the past decades and celebrated the lives of those living with HIV in our community.

There are currently an estimated 34 million people living with HIV throughout the world and an estimated 1.1 million living with HIV in the United States. Racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS from the very beginning of the epidemic. In Washington, D.C., the population with the greatest prevalence rate is African-American heterosexual women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American women accounted for 64% of new infections among women in 2010.

Homeless women are particularly at risk of contracting HIV disease. They are frequently victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, 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.

At N Street Village, 11% of the women served report being HIV positive.  The disease continues to push the limits of health care resources available to low-income women in the District. N Street Village is committed to connecting its clients to appropriate medical care by offering primary medical and psychiatric care on-site through Unity Health Care and through partnerships with nearby providers. Additionally, N Street Village combines stable housing with on-site support services, including a day center providing for basic needs, a wellness center with holistic programming, and mental health and addiction services, all of which empower its clients to make healthy life choices.

Today, more people are living with HIV than ever before. HIV is preventable. HIV does not discriminate. I challenge you to join me in looking at how this virus manifests in your life. Who do you know who is living with HIV? Do you know or love someone who has died of an AIDS related illness? What do you do to reduce the stigma and discrimination for those living with HIV?

And most importantly, be positive you’re negative—get tested

Sources for this post include:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Kaiser Family Foundation
Department of Health and Human Services

It’s no SNAP.

N Street Village AmeriCorps volunteer Sarah Thappa reflects on her experience with SNAP benefits and the program’s impact on the N Street Village Community.

Food Stamp ApplicationAs I stood there, my frustration surmounted and I gave into the tears. Grasping onto my bike helmet, I managed to stammer, “You mean, you want me to bike to the Anacostia food stamp office?” The office staff member just looked at me and nodded yes.

I wanted to scream and tell him how unreasonable that was, how far away that was, and how I couldn’t possibly go there and still make it to work on time. But, I refrained because I knew it wasn’t his fault. That’s the system. That’s our nation’s food stamp system. It’s frustrating, irritating, and demoralizing. At that moment, I began to understand only a bit of what women in need of N Street Village services go through.

It took two weeks and four trips to get my Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. I went to the wrong office in Petworth in my first attempt. Two days later, I woke up at 5 a.m. to wait in line outside the H Street location. I triumphantly walked out of H Street location hours later with my approved documentation, but that was just the beginning. You have to go back to pick up your card 24 hours later.  I made sure to call before I biked over to the office.  They were open and told me to come over. By the time I got there, the computer system had crashed and the staff told me to go to the Anacostia office. At that moment, I was so frustrated and had neither the time nor the will to bike to Anacostia, so I chose to return two days later to finally pick up my card.

During my interview to become an AmeriCorps volunteer, I made sure to ask about the feasibility of living on an AmeriCorps stipend in Washington, D.C. The interviewer assured me that it is doable. Not easy, but definitely doable—especially with food stamps, which I would qualify for as an AmeriCorps volunteer.  It took weeks for the food stamps fact to sink into my system. I remember people at the grocery store pulling out stamps and having to put food back when I was younger, and I wasn’t ready for that. But, I decided I had to be okay with it if that’s what it would take to survive on an AmeriCorps’ salary. Today, SNAP benefits are now accessed using a look-a-like debit card, so I can swipe with fewer stigmas. However, I still get irrationally nervous and self-conscious when I use my benefits because I fear that someone is going to pass judgment.

To get SNAP benefits, a person must bring the completed government paperwork, a copy of your license, government identification, proof of address, a bank account statement, and a letter stating your income. That’s a lot of information to collect.  For me, I could call home or print another copy if necessary. But, I kept thinking, ‘What about the women I work with at N Street Village?’ I began to internalize N Street Village Executive Director Schroeder Stribling’s words from orientation about always aiming to be in solidarity with the women using the Village’s programs. Going through the benefits application process was a peek into what our city’s most vulnerable go through every day. They fight for access to a system that can be helpful if you have the knowledge and the means to navigate it correctly.

Friday, November 1, 2013, marked the day that 47 million Americans experienced cuts to their monthly SNAP benefits. One of those people was me. While my monthly decrease is only $11, that manifests as a weeks’ worth of yogurt, milk, and carrots in my budget. Many will experience larger benefit cuts. The $39 billion budget cuts to SNAP benefits over the next 10 years seem much more real when I think about the impact it will have on the women I work with every day. Living on $6.30 a day is a challenge for me, but then again, that’s $6.30 more than many of the women at N Street Village have.

SARAH THAPPASarah Thappa is a member of AIDS United’s AmeriCorps National team with the Washington AIDS Partnership and serves as the HIV Health Promotion Specialist at N Street Village. She does HIV education, counseling, outreach, and testing in addition to health promotion classes on various topics. Sarah hails from Northern Illinois and graduated from Carleton College ‘13 with a B.A. in Biology.