Notes from the Dead Zone

The politics of AIDS funding in black Miami

MOVERS is where Vanessa Mills, Petera Johnson-Hobson, and dozens of others getting back on their feet after a long slide into addiction and AIDS, were first employed to seek out and counsel the disappeared souls they themselves used to be. It was a risk that MOVERS executive director and co-founder Patricia Kelly, then and now a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, has taken hundreds of times. Her best hires, she insists, have been the men and women with the most troubled backgrounds, including criminal convictions. (Johnson-Hobson has been arrested for cocaine possession but not convicted, and Mills has several burglary and trespass convictions; records for both have been clean for more than a decade.)

"I don't have college-educated people knocking on this door," Kelly remarked a while ago. "Our ministry is to give people a second chance. We're the ones who got them off the street and got them into treatment. If you don't give that person a second chance nobody else will. We have more men with questionable pasts working for us than in the history of any agency. They feel valuable for the first time in their lives."

About twenty blocks south of Mt. Tabor, at Brownsville's Gamble Memorial Church of God in Christ, Patricia Seabrooks, wife of the associate pastor and also a nurse, had started AIDS awareness classes for church members in 1986. "I'd been to two funerals of people who died of AIDS, but no one would acknowledge it," Seabrooks recalls. "At the second funeral the pastor even said the man did not die of AIDS -- it was diabetes and heart trouble. That day I decided I had to do something. I couldn't take the fact that members were dying without the support of the church." The next year Seabrooks received a small grant from the county health department to expand her classes to other black churches. The Rev. Juanita Mincey of Christ Crusaders Family Center in Opa-locka was the first pastor to invite Seabrooks over.

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
"You ain't this big," Vanessa Mills, bottom, jokes while educating her street audience, all in a day's outreach work
Steve Satterwhite
"You ain't this big," Vanessa Mills, bottom, jokes while educating her street audience, all in a day's outreach work

Today Seabrooks, now with a Ph.D. in nursing and a nurse practitioner, is executive vice president of operations and development for Christ Crusaders, Inc. The four-million-dollar nonprofit operates several programs geared toward the needs of Opa-locka's impoverished residents (almost a third of the predominately African-American municipality lives below the poverty line); it is one of the few places in the Opa-locka/Carol City area offering services for people with AIDS.

Headquartered in a block-long barracks-like building on NW 135th Street, Christ Crusaders is in a dusty section of warehouses, garages, gas stations, and a Burger King. Even the grassy, rutted lot on the west side of its building looks desolate.

During Christ Crusaders' back-to-school health fair, though, the lot brightens up under a colorful inflatable children's playground, a tent shading a network of tables and chairs, and a barbecue grill. Gospel music blasts from speakers as mothers lead their excited youngsters over to the spot where Pat Seabrooks, clad in her Army Reserve fatigues, is giving immunizations. The shots dull the children's enthusiasm for only a few seconds, though, and then they're skipping off to the big green-and-yellow inflatable trampoline and slide. And Seabrooks can get to the real point of the health fair: The free music, food, and shots are a vehicle for getting the word out about HIV and AIDS. A group of her fellow reservists shows up every year to help hand out literature, condoms, and information about testing and medical and social services.

The worst problem for these local residents is access to many essential services, AIDS-related and not. "You have to travel to find a bank, a grocery store," observes Seabrooks. "To take care of your health as a person with AIDS, you have to leave your community. You have a choice to either move out of your community, or take public transportation. It's a great hardship."

Christ Crusaders caseworkers must refer their HIV-positive clients to other parts of the county for medical care, prescription medication, food vouchers, and rent and utility assistance. To see a doctor or for lab work, they'll have to go to Jackson or Economic Opportunity Family Health Center, or MOVERS; then usually they'll have to travel even farther away to Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove to pick up their medications (for a large portion of AIDS patients in Miami-Dade, Mercy is the only supplier of subsidized prescription AIDS medicines). Christ Crusaders has applied to participate in the government's food voucher program for the past several years, according to Reverend Mincey, but always was denied because the organization doesn't have a track record of receiving food vouchers. Mercy Hospital, however, is awarded so many vouchers it often sends a portion up to Christ Crusaders. "They don't have the clients," Seabrooks says, "whereas smaller organizations such as ourselves can't show the actual numbers we serve." Like the back-to-school health fair -- no one counted the people dropping over. "The larger organizations hire people to keep track of clients, but we can't afford to pay someone to just sit and take numbers."

On the Street Again

When outreach workers talk to anyone on the street, even if they decline to be tested and maybe just want some condoms, the workers try to get them to fill out a so-called contact sheet for the health department (or ask questions and fill in the sheet themselves, seeking facts and figures about a person's social, economic, medical, and sexual history). Not everyone wants to fill out the form, and sometimes, finding themselves in the midst of a milling crowd of drunk or drugged street entrepreneurs, workers simply don't have the opportunity to fill every line and check every box.Petera Johnson-Hobson, a 40-year-old former cruise-ship singer with a beauty-queen smile and smoky voice, rides out one morning with some of her new outreachers to a spot in Liberty City near D.A. Dorsey Educational Center. On a corner in the shade, a group of teens (AIDS is rising most precipitously among 16- to 25-year-olds) appears to be waiting for a bus. Johnson-Hobson, even in jeans and T-shirt exuding some glimmer of her past glamour, bounds energetically toward the young people, starting to speak before coming to a stop on the curb. "Hey y'all, we're talking about HIV prevention. Our community still hasn't addressed it like we should."

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