By Januari Leo
Over the past several years, Houston has made several notable “best of” lists. Business Insider declared Houston to be “the best U.S. city for accumulating wealth,” while the Smithsonian magazine dubbed us the “Next Great American City.”
However, not all designations are quite so rosy. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2013 HIV Surveillance Report, Houston ranks number 12 in the country for new HIV cases.
According to the recently updated National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which seeks to reduce new HIV transmissions significantly by 2020, over 50 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases are in the South. As of 2012, over 21,000 Houstonians were living with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, with over 1,200 new diagnoses in 2013. In a state that overwhelmingly funds abstinence-based sex-education programs in public schools, refuses to expand Medicaid, and has the largest number of uninsured residents (19 percent, compared to 11 percent nationally), the odds are stacked against bringing these numbers down.
“It has become increasingly obvious that if we want to see a reduction in HIV cases, we are going to have to take matters into our own hands,” says Venita Ray, public affairs field specialist with Legacy Community Health. “We can no longer use a single-issue approach to ending the epidemic in Houston. We have a vision, but it’s going to take all community hands on deck to make it a reality.”
Last year, Legacy applied for and received an AIDS United and Ford Foundation Southern Regional Expansion of Access and Capacity to Address HIV/AIDS (REACH) grant, which supports the improvement of HIV/AIDS-focused policy and advocacy activities at community-based organizations in nine states of the U.S. South. This is the first year that Texas has been included, and Legacy is one of three agencies across the state to receive funding.
“Reducing new HIV transmissions in the Houston and Gulf Coast region through prevention, education, and testing is one of Legacy’s top priorities,” says Katy Caldwell, executive director for Legacy Community Health. “Through the Southern REACH grant, we will develop programs that help shape responsible HIV/AIDS public policy and address the underlying factors contributing to the high rates of HIV/AIDS in Houston.”
Over the next year, Legacy will facilitate a number of activities that will result in a five-year plan to reduce new HIV cases in Houston. The project, titled Ending New Diagnoses (END) HIV/AIDS Houston, will bring together community and agency leaders from across the city to identify and solidify steps that must be taken to improve health outcomes for Houstonians.
“The key to the success of this project is thinking in terms of intersectionality,” says Ray. “We will have all of our traditional HIV/AIDS partners at the table, but in order to truly address the problem, we must consider other factors that have an impact. Faith, LGBT, communities of color, domestic violence, housing, employment, and criminal justice all play major roles in why we are where we are today.”
The plan will kick off on March 29 with a two-day symposium that will both present the state of the disease at the national, state, county, and local levels, as well as give participants an opportunity to break into workgroups to begin assignments that will take place over the next four months.
“The symposium will be by invitation only, because we felt that it was important for attendees to commit to the work that will have to take place in order to make this successful,” says Ray. “We’ve been working closely with the Health Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School to help design the structure of the symposium, as well as the direction for the workgroups. But ultimately, we want a community-driven plan. They are the experts.”
Workgroups will meet monthly through July, and participants will then have one more opportunity to come together and provide feedback on the results before the document is released for final printing. The five-year plan will be available to everyone on December 1, 2016, which is World AIDS Day.
“Putting together the plan is the easy part,” Ray says. “The real work begins with implementation. But Houston is a progressive city that gets things done. We’re looking forward to joining the ranks of Seattle, New York State, and Atlanta in coming up with a comprehensive plan to address HIV/AIDS.”
Januari Leo is the director of public affairs for Legacy Community Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @januarileo.