Yesterday I was ending another one of my typical weeks here in Hollywood. You know the ones filled with an excess of encouragement and not enough signed contracts or checks that clear. Hollywood is a town where everyone is always just about to have an orgasm, but for factors out of their control, never manage to have one. So we end up running around the city in a state of frenzy, just about ready to complete that big project, sign that big deal, work with that A list client, but never ever really actually attaining the goal - just moving onto the next even bigger moment, the one that will result in the bigger deal, bigger check, bigger payoff -- well you get my idea.
I spent the better part of last night whining to my mother prior to my hard double-dose of reality served up this afternoon. Sometimes God works in the strangest ways and gets you to see things you previously were blind to. Today my eyes got a chance to focus on Christopher Reece and Corey VanEs, a homeless couple whom are both HIV positive. My good friend Dave introduced us as he had given them a place to stay for sometime before they needed to take up residence at the Salvation Army's Bell Shelter. Dave told me Christopher was forced to become homeless after his eviction in December of 2007. Christopher was evicted when there was a bureaucratic snag in his disability and his checks stopped. His landlord did not care and would not wait for the checks to resume, and Christopher was forced to depend on the kindness of friends.
Christopher's dilemma started July of 2007 after he lost his job of 13 months as a Leasing Consultant. The position originally offered health insurance, but his boss insisted that he would not be eligible for ADAP if he took it. Christopher did not know at the time that advice was completely incorrect and, instead, listened to his boss. His boss further suggested to him that due to his HIV status and that there were various organizations out there that would be able to provide assistance, therefore he would be fine without the insurance. Earlier this year, an on the job injury forced Christopher to stop working, and his needs changed entirely. Unfortunately, Christopher lost his worker's comp claim, but however, remains optimistic regarding a pending civil lawsuit against his former employer, Decron Properties.
I contacted the gentlemen and they were eager to talk to me and have their story told to the world. They are not looking for pity but are instead looking to become self-reliant and would prefer a home of their own instead of relying on handouts from often-inconsistent community organizations. Christopher stated clearly, "This is not who I am. This is not who I want to be. I am a strong person and want to give back to this wonderful country. I just want to be given my chance." In spite of their situation, the couple participated in the AIDS Walk in October and had the good fortune to be interviewed by Fox Television.
The couple met through friends during an outing at a local amusement park. They both instantly hit it off. The chemistry between them is evident and I firmly believe that without the other neither could find the strength to fight this battle. This weekend, Corey is making a splurge on their behalf - he receives a general relief check from the government - and will obtain a night at a local hotel (for the princely sum of $40) so they can have some much-needed quality time as a couple. Although the shelter provides them with three meals and a bed, and it is the only one in Los Angeles County that will take in couples, they do not allow them to touch, kiss, hold hands or do the basic things that we on the "outside world" take for granted when we are dating. They are forced to act like friends, though it is obvious that they would prefer to be doing something else.
Christopher and Corey had originally sought out assistance from various AIDS Service Organizations around Los Angeles. Being HIV positive, and gay, they thought that was the place to go. They both soon realized they thought wrong. The couple receives medical services from the Jeffrey Goodman Clinic at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. All that was needed from the Case Manager assigned to them by the Center was a signature by 5:00 p.m. on a certain day a few weeks ago and both of them could have avoided the humiliation of being in a homeless shelter. However, the Case Manager opted not to give them some key information - they both needed to have appointments that day in order to qualify and only one did - and told them this information after 5:00 p.m. - several hours after they made the request.
This lack of action instantly forced them into the homeless shelter cycle for now they had run out of options. Corey was familiar with the New Image Agency, and with the help of their new Case Manager, Geneva Ramos, they could be placed immediately in a shelter together, which was Salvation Army's Bell facility. Corey explained that Geneva was the only person now on the job at New Image but treated them like human beings rather than pieces of paper that the Gay and Lesbian Center had done. At least they were able to stay together and start to get some of their problems solved.
At the Bell Facility, they were assigned another amazing Case Worker, Maria Ruiz. Maria is working diligently to get the couple into Section 8 housing in Long Beach and maybe by the time you are reading this it has already happened.
I asked them if they had signed up as clients at AIDS Project Los Angeles and Aid for AIDS, a West Hollywood based organization that specialized in placing HIV positive people into housing. Christopher told me that both agencies stated the same thing - find the housing first and then they will give you the necessary funds to secure the deal. Great idea in theory, but when was the last time you tried to get Section 8 housing in a city lives around the car. The couple obviously don't have their own auto and depend on the greatly lacking mass transit system in Los Angeles for their wheels.
I asked them about transportation then - the Bell facility is located nowhere near any of the aforementioned organizations. Christopher and Corey explained that they do live a thirty-minute bus ride from a Metro Rail Station, and that does help, but it can easily be a two-hour trip up to the Goodman Clinic. Taking in waiting times, return trips, it becomes an all day affair just for one short doctor's visit. They also depend on the kindness of friends now, and Christopher made it abundantly clear when he stated, "You really get to know who your friends are in situations like this."
While at the Bell Facility, the couple is taking advantage of job training classes. Corey has performed a variety of service related positions, while Christopher holds a Bachelor's degree in Accounting from the University of the West Indies. Christopher starts computer training on Monday, while Corey will be starting a multi week California Pizza Kitchen training. Upon completion of the CPK training, Corey will be certified to work at CPK restaurant and will be moved to the top of the applicant's list and should have a position when one becomes available. Christopher is unclear as to his next move, but remains confident in his skills. He shared with me that during his 13-month tenure at the Leasing Agency, the over 200-unit apartment complex always achieved a 99% occupancy rate - something almost unheard of in this transitory town of Los Angeles.
Later in the conversation we discussed the upcoming election. Corey planned to vote in his first election (he is 26) because of Proposition 8. Christopher, having only his green card, stated that Corey was going to be voting for the both of them.
Christopher also remains tremendously clear on another concept. He said, "People with HIV should not have to live on the streets, without proper nutrition or healthcare. Society should take care of its most needy and not allow them to suffer." I could not agree more.
The couple both amazed and energized me. They shared that if they help one person with this interview then they have achieved their goal. I must tell you that they already have. That person is me.
Christopher and Corey are just another example of why we need Universal healthcare. All Americans deserve that shot at the "American Dream". Let's not let it be for some an "American Nightmare".
Our society is only as strong as its weakest link.