From the Post Archives

Women With AIDS Get A Place of Their Own

Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 1987; 2:06 PM

Until yesterday, Gloria Smith, who has AIDS, had spent a year in a cramped, spartan room at D.C. General Hospital because she had no place to go. She was too healthy for a nursing home and not ready for a hospice, and she lacked money or relatives able to care for her.

"I could have signed myself out of the hospital," said Smith, a 37-year-old mother of four, "but I didn't want to have to prostitute myself for a place to stay. And I didn't want to go back to the whole rat race" of being a homeless drug addict desperate for a fix.

Smith is the first resident of the nation's first home for women with AIDS, which opened yesterday in Northwest Washington. Sponsored by Damien Ministries, a group of Roman Catholic laymen that ministers to persons with AIDS, the home will provide services to one of the fastest-growing groups of AIDS patients: women who use intravenous drugs or are sexual partners of male addicts.

Damien officials are so concerned that residents may be harassed that they permitted news media access only on the condition that the location of the house remain undisclosed. City zoning law permits five unrelated adults who do not require supervision to live in the same house without neighborhood approval or special permits.

Although most of the 38,000 AIDS cases reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control are homosexual men, more than 2,600 women have contracted the disease, a sixfold increase in less than three years. Smith is one of 50 Washington area women who have AIDS, according to statistics compiled by the D.C. Commission on Public Health. More than 1,100 cases have been reported in the Washington area, which has the fifth-highest incidence of AIDS in the country.

Public health experts predict that AIDS will probably not explode among heterosexuals, as it did in the gay community, but that the increase will be gradual. Because of the long incubation period of AIDS, District health officials say the number of cases may reflect only 5 percent of those who are infected or potentially infectious.

Among women and children, AIDS increasingly is a disease of those who are, like Smith, poor and black. Unlike gay men who can often rely on a network of support services, most women with AIDS, particularly drug addicts, have no such cushion. Many are ostracized when they get sick and lose whatever housing they may have had.

"There is no support community for the intravenous drug abuser, male or female, but females are totally lost," said the Rev. Harold Burris, director of the housing program for Washington's Whitman-Walker Clinic, the area's largest gay health organization. "A woman who finds out she is [infected] seems to lose all social acceptability and there's almost always a need for housing." Whitman-Walker houses about 40 area AIDS patients, nearly all of them gay men.

The four-bed home for women is the creation of Louis J. Tesconi, a 38-year-old former real estate lawyer who learned he had AIDS last year, shortly after he moved to Washington to prepare for a second career as a Roman Catholic priest.

Tesconi founded Damien Ministries eight months ago, after he was asked to leave a local seminary. "We want to reach out to people whose needs are not being met by other groups," he said. "What I kept hearing every time I talked to hospital social workers was that the most dramatic need was for housing for women who have AIDS and their children."

The house is one of seven residences for AIDS patients in the District, the first of which was opened in 1984 by Whitman-Walker. The clinic also has sought to shield the location of its homes.

"People generally talk with the ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] and get them on board, but these homes are operated on a low-key basis and opened with little or no fanfare," said Jean Tapscott, the city's AIDS coordinator.

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© 1987 The Washington Post Company