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Vanessa Mills regularly drives her black Jeep to places in Miami not hospitable to a lone woman, or a lone man, for that matter: a trash-pocked lot on NW 17th Avenue, a dilapidated wood-frame house on 81st Street, a garage behind a mostly vacant strip center. Mills will park and walk down an alley or behind an abandoned cargo container, to where she expects to find a girl she knows. More often than not the girl will be where Mills encountered her the week before, head bobbing and mouth twitching a little from the crack, waiting in the company of four or five other people, all of whom Mills knows by street name. This is another day at the office for Mills, a skinny, intense woman with braided hair, lopsided smile, and mournful eyes. Another day to fortify herself with the hard lessons she learned years ago as she was hauling herself out of these very places. Mills understands it won't work to try to change the people she encounters here. But now she can be an ally who, when the time is right, can lend a hand, prod this young black woman to face the truth -- that she's not just courting her own premature death, but helping AIDS decimate her own people.
In another fifteen or twenty minutes, the girl, Tonya, will run silver gloss over her lips, shove some fancy clips in her hair, and prance out to the sidewalk (followed at a discreet distance by her man) to begin work in the midmorning heat.
Mills greets the group and gives a quick toss of the chin. "Hey, Tonya, I needta talk to you." And they'll stroll over to a shady spot near the Jeep, where the girl relates her latest personal and health difficulties and why she wasn't around a few days earlier when Mills came by to take her to her doctor's appointment. She was in jail, Tonya relates, and no doubt it's true. Back when Mills was using, she spent quite a few nights locked up.
Mills hands her several condoms, which she shoves down her tank top. Mills adds she'll come back tomorrow to drive the girl to the clinic, and again Monday morning for the SINGS (Sisters In Need Gathering Strength) workshop, a breakfast and support group that meets weekly (lured, Mills acknowledges, by the free food) at an unmarked strip center storefront on NW 22nd Avenue. And she will hug Tonya, climb back into her car, and head a few blocks away to find another woman who is reluctant to be found. Another one skeletal with AIDS, another African-American woman who is getting tired of being on the street, tired of feeling so bad and working so hard for nothing more than one rock after another, knowing she'll only get sicker if she doesn't do something to help herself, but with no idea where to begin to break the cycle.
This is what Mills and her business partner, Petera Johnson-Hobson, specialize in, reaching into unsalvageable lives and occasionally saving them. Their fledgling nonprofit, Empower U, Inc., housed in that anonymous storefront on NW 22nd Avenue, is one of several small AIDS service organizations that have lately emerged in Miami's poorest African-American neighborhoods. The work these street-level outfits do is labor-intensive, frequently discouraging, and potentially dangerous. It's also, in the opinion of most AIDS activists, the only way to get at an array of social and economic conditions that encourage the epidemic that is ruining black lives at a frightening pace.
The so-called dead zone at the heart of Miami, mainly the ZIP codes 33142 and 33147, encompassing parts of Allapattah and Model City, is where the AIDS epidemic has hit harder than anywhere else in Florida. Miami, after all, claims the nation's highest per-capita rate of AIDS infection, a statistic that obscures a worse reality: Blacks of all national origins account for more than half (published statistics range from 51 percent to 56 percent) of all AIDS cases in Miami-Dade, despite constituting just 20 percent of the population. No other ethnic group in the county is so affected; in fact, the incidence of AIDS among Hispanics, while increasing, is relatively low (57 percent of the Miami-Dade population accounts for 32 percent of AIDS cases). Similarly African Americans are contracting AIDS at a faster rate than other ethnic groups: In 2001, 168 out of 100,000 blacks had the disease, according to county health department statistics, while the rate was 31 and 25 per 100,000 for Hispanics and whites, respectively.
From the beginning of the epidemic in the early Eighties, people of color in general have had higher infection rates than whites. Nevertheless the greater number of AIDS cases initially was among white, middle-class gay men, who quickly mobilized to form strong advocacy, treatment, and education networks. It wasn't until the mid-Nineties that the public began to learn about the severity of the crisis among heterosexual minorities. Yet the overall amount of money spent on HIV-AIDS treatment and prevention, $14.7 billion nationwide (according to government figures), has remained stable for the past several years (and this year the Florida Legislature reduced AIDS spending). Thus in many areas competition for funding, always highly political, inevitably has pitted ethnic groups against each other. Meanwhile more minority-sensitive efforts and billions of dollars have barely slowed the HIV infection rate, which in many areas continues to rise among blacks and Hispanics. (On South Beach, the rate of new infections among young white men is as high as in Liberty City, according to the nonprofit South Beach AIDS Project.)