Friends For Life is well-known in the Mid-South as a lead organization fighting the spread and stigma of HIV/AIDS.
“We have served over 25,000 people living with or affected by HIV,” said Eric Paul Leue, Friends for Life’s director of prevention. “Within Shelby County, we have about 267 new HIV infections per year. Our average STI case load in this county is about 10 times that of the national average.”
Leue is leading Friends for Life’s newest effort — a space that will make it easier for people to get tested for sexually transmitted infections and access preventions and treatments.
“The Corner will open November 4 at 806 South Cooper Street to provide free of charge, same day access to PrEP, PEP and comprehensive routine sexual health testing, regardless of insurance status,” said Leue.
“Together with our communities and partners, we have created The Corner to be a community space to all, with a broad array of direct services and a wealth of services with our community partners that we can refer clients to,” he continued.
Friends for Life has been careful to avoid branding The Corner as a clinic, though it will have medical staff, a pharmacy and testing for a range of STIs. They’re aiming for a more casual, approachable atmosphere with weekend and evening hours and a retail section with locally made goods.
“We are partnering with local minority artists, jewelers, sculptors and more to showcase their work and make it available for purchase to a broad audience. We will also have some branded apparel focusing on education and stigma reduction,” said Leue, adding that their branded t-shirt was in high demand at this year’s Mid-South Pride and Cooper Young Festival.
Friends for Life’s main offices and client services are located at 43 North Cleveland Avenue in Madison Heights and open from 8:30 a.m to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. There they offer education, programming and services centered on advocacy, food and nutrition, health and wellness, housing assistance and more for people living with or affect by HIV/AIDS. They also operate The Haven in Downtown Memphis, which primarily works with African American men.
“We have clients in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. It doesn’t actually matter where you live,” said Leue.
The Corner is the first of three centers Friends for Life hopes to open to address the need for accessible, affordable and less intimidating sexual healthcare. Leue said the locations for the other sites have not been finalized, but they will be sited in areas with a big need and based on input from experts, partners and community members.
They also hope to have a mobile center that can extend their impact throughout the Mid-South.
“Our focus is on making this HIV prevention tool widely available for the benefit of our community’s health,” said Leue. “[With The Corner], we want to make it available to anyone that walks in the door … We’re actually going to have a variety of work shifts that will allow PEP and PrEP almost every day.”
Friends for Life’s float in the 2019 Mid-South Pride Parade promoted both PrEP and The Corner, slated to open November 4. (Kevin Reed)
A FOCUS ON PREVENTION
PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis, a drug taken after a known or suspected exposure to prevent HIV infection. PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis is taken daily to prevent infection. When taken as prescribed, PrEP is 99% effective.
Kevin Baugh is not a Friends for Life client, but he does take PrEP. He is a veteran and gets his PrEP through the Memphis VA Medical Center.
“I was a medic in the Army and know condoms are not always beneficial, nor are they always an option. My only thought was how can I protect myself from HIV/AIDS … from the occasional slip up or whatever.”
As a sexual assault survivor, Baugh also knows sometimes exposure can’t be predicted or avoided. PrEP is one way to protect himself regardless of circumstance.
“Too many do not know their status and most refuse to get checked. At the same time, there is a lot of stigma associated with the use of PrEP,” he said, noting people often assume taking PEP or PrEP is a sign of promiscuity or a lack of morals.
“I feel everyone who can take PrEP should,” he continued. “It helps lower your risk of contracting HIV significantly, and when used with condoms, it can drop your risk of exposure to less than one percent.”
Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in September that revealed serious racial and ethnic disparities in the use of PrEP. White men are far more likely than Black or Latino men to know about PrEP, talk to a doctor about it and use it. PrEP is overwhelming use by men who have sex with men and typically only available to those with insurance.
In Memphis, a majority-minority city with high rates of poverty and uninsured residents, correcting for racial and income disparities is critical.
According to the Shelby County Health Department’s most recent data examining 2012 to 2016, Black men who have sex with men are the most likely to contract HIV, but 30 to 42% of new cases result from heterosexual sex. South Memphis has the highest number of new infections.
Baugh feels taking PrEP is part of personal responsibility to the larger community.
“I take PREP because I am a single, sexually active man in a city with a high rate of sexually transmitted disease cases,” said Baugh. “HIV has decimated our community for decades, and now we have a chance to fight back.”
The Corner hopes to be a major player in that fight.
Several places in Memphis offer free PEP or PrEP, but many low-income and uninsured Mid-Southerners can’t get the prescription because it requires a comprehensive metabolic panel that is costly without insurance. The Shelby County Health Department offers that testing for free, along with the prescription, but often has a lengthy wait list.
The Corner will provide all related testing at no cost to clients and at lightening speed.
Leue said in November, they’ll focus on pre-scheduled appointments and same-day appointments made by phone. After their grand opening December 1, World AIDS Day, they’ll accept appointments and walk-ins.
For questions regarding The Corner or to book an appointment, contact Leue at [email protected]
The Corner is funded through federal grants, as well as the partnership with the on-site pharmacy and the retail space which have the potential to generate revenue. Dr. Shawn Hayden, board chair for Friends for Life, is also donating his time to serve as medical director, which Leue said would otherwise be a major expense.
Progress and WIns
Friends for Life was founded in 1985 in Memphis as the Aid To End AIDS Committee.
The year prior, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it found the cause of AIDS, later named Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and a way to test for it.
At the time, HIV/AIDS was still largely misunderstood and highly feared with widespread panic, news coverage and stigma for those suffering from the condition. Specifically in 1985, actor Rock Hudson became the first public figure to announce he had AIDS, causing AIDS stories in major media to triple in six months.
With no effective treatments, HIV/AIDS in the 1980s meant an average of 12 years from exposure to death.
Since then, major discoveries and advancements in treatment have dramatically improved length and quality of life. There’s PEP and PrEP to prevent infection, and effective treatments for those who are infected, who have an average life expectancy of 78 years given access to proper treatment and support.
“You can live a long, healthy life with HIV,” said Leue.
Baugh has some basic advice for anyone who is at even minimal risk of exposure to HIV and other diseases and infections.
“Simply put, protect yourself. But also protect our community and at least get tested,” he said. “I go every three months, whether I had sex or not in that time. I get a full STD screening. There are several places in the city that will test you for free or at least a discount.”