By Denny Patterson
South Florida is known for having several LGBTQ non-profit and advocacy groups. Well, did you know there is a specific organization that focuses especially on the rapidly-growing local Latino community? For the past ten years, Latinos Salud has created a safe and inclusive space for Latino men, their partners, those who are transgender, and anyone who is living with HIV+. The agency provides services for everyone who wishes to learn more about staying healthy, or wants to find friends, support, and resources. The organization’s diverse staff hails from across the world, including Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Venezuela. Each of Latinos Salud’s staff are gay, bilingual, certified counselors who guide members to stay safe from HIV, or live a healthier life with HIV. I had the pleasure of chatting more with Latinos Salud’s executive director, Dr. Stephen Fallon, and co-founder Rafaelé Narváez. For more information, visit www.LatinosSalud.org.
For those who are not familiar with Latinos Salud, what exactly is it?
Latinos Salud is a community-based organization committed to helping people stay safe from, or live healthier with HIV. This focus is so important because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just reported there are only two groups in the U.S. for which new HIV cases are increasing: gay men and Latinos. While some of our programs are reserved specifically for gay Latinos, most are not. We also serve all guys living with HIV, and anyone who identifies as transgender. And we provide free testing services to everyone. We sometimes put it this way: our name is Latinos Salud, not Latinos only Salud.
Fabulous. Can you talk a bit more about some of the major programs you offer?
We have free walk-in services Monday through Friday from 11:00AM to 9:00PM, including HIV rapid testing, STD screening, linkage-to-care for persons living with HIV, PrEP navigation and enrollment, one-on-one client centered risk reduction using our homegrown DiversiSAFE approach, case management (currently available in Broward only), one-on-one life coaching for guys with HIV, social events for gay Latinos age 30 and under, a peer leadership course for gay Latinos of all ages, support groups in both counties for everyone living with or affected by HIV, condom delivery to gatekeeper businesses, and occasional community building events, like our Hispanic Heritage Food Bazaar this month. (Join us Saturday, November 10, 2018 at 6:00PM at ArtServe, for food, music and fun!)
How long has Latinos Salud been around?
We opened for services in January of 2009 in Wilton Manors, added a Miami Beach location in 2014, and added our Southwest location in 2016. The Southwest location was just upgraded to our new space in Westchester.
How long have you been the executive director, and were you involved with the organization before then?
I had helped agencies in 42 states set up and fund their health programs, including a Broward agency that had asked for help securing government contracts. Rafaelé Narváez, our Director of Health Programs, co-founded Latinos Salud with me when that other local agency decided to drop its HIV prevention programs for Latinos. Initially, our goal was just to restore the abandoned programs. After that, Latinos Salud grew year by year, in response to community requests for additional services. Our other senior staff member, Johnathan Medina, has been with us since the beginning, serving on our founding Board of Directors for two years before coming on staff as our Miami-Dade Health Program Manager in late 2010.
How beneficial do you think Latinos Salud has been to others?
We have created a safe space where guys who might feel they don’t fit in can come find community and resources. Many of our members refer to Latinos Salud as their second home, their casita. Because people come to us who would never feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality to their physician or clinic, each year we also diagnose many clients who had no idea they were living with HIV. We also have re-engaged many guys living with HIV who had fallen out of care because they didn’t know that here in the U.S. we have programs to help them stay in care even if they change jobs or move.
When guys are consistently engaged in care, they usually bring their virus under control to the level we call undetectable. Getting their virus down to these levels interrupts the damage HIV would otherwise have wreaked on their immune system. These outcomes are so important, because today guys can live for nearly half a century with HIV, but here in South Florida, HIV+ gay Latinos live an average of eight years. By helping them to understand and stay in care, we look forward to seeing our clients live the full lives they deserve.
Not only does this help our clients living with HIV, but it also benefits the community overall. Guys who are living with HIV who also maintain an undetectable viral load have too little HIV in their system for it to “leak out” during sex. In plain language, they become non-contagious, even if a condom is overlooked, and even if a partner isn’t on PrEP. There are many people who are scared that this exciting news must somehow be a trick or a mistake, but several studies (like Opposites Attract and PARTNER), have now tracked nearly 100,000 acts of condomless sex between partners of different HIV statuses, where the HIV+ partner had an undetectable viral load, and there has not been a single linked infection. Some HIV-negative guys in the study did become infected, but not by their partner. Genetic analysis showed that they became infected by someone else whose HIV was not under control.
It sounds like Latinos Salud has helped a lot of people.
We provide HIV and STD screening to nearly 5,000 people each year. We perform broad scale outreach and condom distribution to another 30,000 people each year. We also have deep impact programs, like our life coaching and case management services, that help a few hundred people a year.
What is the ultimate goal?
Our vision is to create a safe and inclusive space that breaks down the barriers which contribute to health disparities, especially amongst South Florida’s gay and bisexual Latinos, and all persons living with HIV.
Do you plan to expand Latinos Salud outside the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area?
We plan to continue adding more services in each of our three locations, but do not have plans to enlarge our footprint geographically at this time.
Latinos Salud is already a great success, but what do you hope to do to make it continuously better?
Like that old car rental commercial, I often say, “We’re #2, so we try harder.” As a relatively young non-profit, with its budget spread over three far flung locations, we have to make every dollar count. Our grant funders at all levels know that they can count on us to go beyond promises and good intentions, to actually deliver consistent outcomes. The CDC rated our efforts fourth in the nation last year, and our staff have since developed systems that funders have adopted for future grantees. Because of this, we have been very fortunate to grow the Latinos Salud each year with our grants.
However, our success is not guaranteed, and we face one huge challenge: we receive very little financial support from the community. There’s a huge philanthropic community in South Florida that supports dozens of other LGBTQ non-profits, but for some reason, has not supported Latinos Salud. And what private support we do receive is almost all from Broward community members. Four years into providing what now totals $1 million worth of free services in Miami-Dade each year, we receive fewer than a dozen donations of $100 or more from Miami-Dade community members annually. That’s not sustainable.
What would you say has been the organization’s biggest accomplishment so far?
There have been so many changes in HIV prevention and treatment options. Agencies and health departments have all tried to raise awareness and make information understandable and relevant to their community members. We invented the “DiversiSAFE” approach to bust through myths and empower each community member, HIV+ and HIV-, to take control of their health. While we offer this free counseling one-on-one each day, we have also staged some fun and memorable large events to mobilize the community. These DiversiSAFE town halls have been the largest of their kind in the country, delivering life-saving information to up to 500 people at each event.
For anyone who would like to be involved with Latinos Salud, what should they do?
If you need services, just walk into any of our locations. We are not the sort of place with rows of plastic chairs or a sterile waiting room. Step in our “living room,” and let us know what you need. If you are a giving person, please also ask yourself, why not Latinos Salud? Many amazing community members give to groups that represent backgrounds very different from their own. We would like to invite you to invest in your community.
What is in store for the future? What’s next for Latinos Salud?
We will be holding our tenth Anniversary Gala on February 2nd at the Design Center of the Americas. This will be a gala fundraiser, with lots of wow factors! And our Hispanic Heritage Food Bazaar will take place on Saturday, November 10, 2018.