Miami-Dade and Broward counties rank first and second in the nation in new HIV infections. Among the most at risk are gay Latinos, many from Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Honduras, where there is a deficiency in sex education. It’s for this reason Latinos Salud was formed in 2008 to create a safe space for gay Latinos and provide them with much-needed education, support and resources.
Stephen Fallon, executive director of Latinos Salud, said new infections are declining in most regions and populations across the United States. But they are rising in South Florida, especially amongst gay Latinos. After infection, minorities in Miami-Dade live only about half as long on average as their non-minority peers, Fallon said.
“So much has changed since Latinos Salud was founded about nine years ago,” Fallon said. “When I think about what’s happened in the epidemic in the past couple of decades—when medicine was trying to fight back against HIV back then—we were not succeeding. We were basically building sand castles against a tsunami, and it was just wiping people away. The one thing we did have was community. Every week, you’d pick up the bar magazine and it was filled with obituaries. Friends were lost every week, and so community was built around fear. People ran out and told their friends, ‘don’t do this. Do this instead; it’s safer. Be careful.’”
Latinos Salud hosted an open house July 25 for its recently relocated Miami Beach office from Fifth Street and Washington Avenue to 925 Arthur Godfrey Road. The event served to introduce the community to the agency’s new locations, which offer free walk-in HIV and STD screening, HIV education and prevention programs, linkage to care services for clients living with HIV, support groups and mobile testing van community outreach. Latinos Salud was founded in Wilton Manors in 2008, added a Miami Beach location in 2014 and a Kendall location in 2016.
Victor Gonzalez, Miami Beach program coordinator, said the new Miami Beach location on Arthur Godfrey Road is making it more convenient for “people to find us,” providing more parking and more space than at the Washington Avenue location.
“We wanted something bigger, more friendly and welcoming,” Gonzalez said. “One of the downfalls from our old office was that it was very touristy in the heart of South Beach. We didn’t receive many residential clients. Here, we are receiving many more residential clients.”
Fallon says today, some people may say there is no more community, perhaps in part because the epidemic isn’t as visible, he said. But attendance at the Miami Beach open house proved otherwise. “We do still have community,” he said.
“The epidemic doesn’t instill so much fear. We don’t see the obituaries every single day like we used to,” Fallon said. “So do we have the same need for community? Well, from a medical standpoint, the good news is HIV is no longer a foregone tragedy. Medicine has come very far. There is an amazing life potential for somebody living with HIV, if they do everything right. But HIV is still a burden and we want to prevent our friends from having to carry that burden if they’re not already living with HIV. Those who are living with HIV, we want to make sure their life doesn’t have tragedy in it. We want to make sure they get into care and that the care is effective.”
Will Portalatin, board chair, says Latinos Salud wants to make sure it is providing services in the much-needed community areas as possible.
“Hence why we opened up in Kendall two years ago,” he said. “We found there was a need there because of language barriers. Many of our Spanish-speaking members are Spanish-speaking only. It’s challenging for this group to get the testing and linkage services.”
Portalatin says the agency has taken huge steps from when they were just a small clubhouse in Wilton Manors.
“We’ve come a long way in a decade,” he said. “Thanks to grant funding, we’ve expanded our hours from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. all locations, Monday through Friday. Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Wilton Manors. It’s such a great feeling to know the community is responding to what we have to offer and they continue to come back to volunteer and bring other people they know. I’m also happy we’re much more open to dialogue not just in our community but everywhere in general. We’ve evolved a lot and we’re here to provide education, counseling and services to help everyone live a long and healthier lifestyle.”