Last Updated on September 9, 2015 by bvnadmin

[vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text css_animation=””]Activists say the HIV population is vulnerable and larger than most records indicate When San Bernardino County’s population began to boom 15 years ago, it was a magnet for young families eager to stake their claim on a piece of more affordable housing than what they were accustomed to elsewhere. Many of the migrants reshaping the county’s demographics were minorities. And although the county was often criticized for a lack of zest or cultural appeal compared to neighboring Los Angeles County, it didn’t stifle the influx of new residents from different backgrounds flooding once-underpopulated cities.

In the midst of this new, millennial migration came a growing HIV population that local HIV/AIDS activists say are underserved – and likely undercounted. According to the San Bernardino Department of Public Health, HIV cases in San Bernardino County increased by 4.9 percent in 2013 to 3,613 cases compared with 3,457 cases in 2012. African-Americans make up a large portion of the county’s HIV population, accounting for 19.8 percent of cases diagnosed even though they represent about 9 percent of the county’s general population.

RELATED COMMENTARY: AIDS Stigma Killed My Uncle in 2014 — Not the Disease

National statistics have indicated African-Americans are vulnerable to healthcare disparities, as well as managing their HIV conditions. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in February showed that only about one in every three blacks are receiving effective HIV treatment to manage their disease. It’s one reason why local activists and HIV organizations are pushing for increased awareness about the HIV population in San Bernardino County, and stop the flow of new HIV infections.

Nosente Uhuti, MSW, is one of the Inland Empire’s earliest HIV activists. Uhuti recalls the days when she would walk streets, spreading information about the disease and urge testing. Although those instances were in the 1980’s when HIV/AIDS invoked fear and hysteria, Uhuti insists the disease remains an issue that isn’t receiving enough attention by officials.

“I think it’s because they took away the resources that agencies need to do the job. One of the first cuts, when money became really tight around HIV/AIDS, the first cut was education. So, I’m not really surprised that the numbers are rising if you’re not educating the community. That’s kind of a result of that, but it’s not because the agencies don’t want to, I think it’s more that they don’t have the resources … and it’s within the framework of how they do outreach,” said Uhuti.

Uhuti, who served as an advisor to the Inland Empire HIV Planning Council (IEHPC), is no stranger to attracting attention to HIV/AIDS in the region. In 2010, Uhuti, along with now-deceased HIV activist Pat Green-Lee and other activists, protested before the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors over failures in leadership regarding HIV/AIDS. She, along with Kismet Evans, chief executive officer of Inland Empire Veterans Stand Down (IEVSD), formed the One Voice Collaborative, an HIV/AIDS advocacy group.

Uhuti is steadfast that effective HIV/AIDS outreach must be done within minority communities and the message has to be delivered by credible individuals who fit into those environments, otherwise the effort is wasted.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]Challenges to Healthy Living

Jonia Williamson knows firsthand why it’s critical for those who are HIV positive to have access to resources and support services, she said. Williamson said she was infected by her partner, who didn’t disclose or possibly know his HIV status. Williamson learned of her condition in 1993 after she was rushed to emergency care with respiratory ailments and chicken pox. Against her doctor’s advice, Williamson rebuked medication out of fear it would kill her sooner and lead to a “miserable death.”

Williamson, who is HIV positive, fled from her life in Miami-Dade County, Fla. during a tumultuous period to start a new life in California and be near her sister. Williamson opted for a “holistic” approach to managing her HIV, surviving about 10 years on vitamins and without medication until her condition began to worsen and her T-cell count dropped. By that time, new medications were available that eased Williamson into a medically-advised regimen, with less pills than she would have taken shortly after her HIV diagnosis.

Williamson eventually settled down in Highland, a city east of San Bernardino, and evolved into a full-fledged HIV/AIDS activist. Williamson said she recognizes there is a significant gap in HIV resources available to HIV-positive people living in San Bernardino County.

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Artwork courtesy World Aids Day

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]Foothill AIDS Project (FAP), was one of the leading organizations to confront the HIV/AIDS crisis in the Inland Empire, mostly San Bernardino County when the non-profit was created in 1987. Back then, the organization was mostly run by white men and provided outreach to men of a similar demographic. The organization is still providing resources to the region’s HIV/AIDS community, and is also now more multi-cultural, providing assistance to more minorities and women, with a staff that reflects the changing face of HIV/AIDS in the Inland Empire.

More than 90 percent of FAP’s clients live in poverty, and more than half of them reside in San Bernardino. About one-third of its clients are women, many with young children. And about 65 percent of the organization’s clients are African-American and Latino.

Art McDermott, development and communication manager for FAP, said the statistics underscore why it’s important for the agencies to maintain funding to reach people who need resources, such as information about access to doctors, medicine, and referrals. The organization helps clients access mental health services, housing, and substance abuse counseling, among other services.

Williamson, who is also a client with FAP, credits the organization’s help by providing her with weekly therapy and leans on them when necessary, but admits there still are not enough resources to help the HIV community in San Bernardino County.

“It’s not enough. They need more people to help the community. There are some people that are still afraid to admit they are HIV positive. There are still people afraid to get the test done. But the sooner they get the test done and as soon as they get the meds, the better off they will be,” said Williamson.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text css_animation=””]Stigmas and Stereotypes Persist

Kevin Powell has been HIV positive since 1988 and understands the stigmas that surround people who are HIV-positive. Powell says he was fortunate to be supported by a family that is accepting of same-sex relationships.

Williamson’s story, however, models a common reaction that black HIV activists say still persist in the African-American community. Williamson, who was very active in her church, said many people turned their backs on her and spread rumors about her once she began to disclose her HIV status. No longer did her church family hug her, people were afraid to touch her.

Uhuti and Evans both agreed that the stigma facing African-Americans who are HIV-positive remains prevalent. Those stigmas, often fueled by stereotypes about a person’s lifestyle, can be detrimental because people living with HIV need a supportive environment because no one knows their issues behind closed doors.

African-American activists suggest that church and religion is still influential on black culture and has the ability to shape the attitudes and perceptions people have about HIV/AIDS – if more church leaders would confront the issue.

Pastor Harry Bratton, pastor of Greater Faith Grace Baptist Church in Rialto, said it would be helpful to the HIV-positive community if more pastors were open to discussing HIV in their congregations since it isn’t only HIV-positive people who may be affected by the disease.

“I really think they should be very open because you never know how many people in your own church have family, friends that may be affected by HIV but because being a social stigma they may be afraid come forth and church needs to be a safe place they can come and say ‘my son or my daughter or cousin’ is affected by HIV, what can the church do.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]