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.
Last week, the D.C. Zoning Board ruled that a 15-bed facility for terminally ill AIDS patients in Northeast operated by nuns from Mother Teresa's order violates city zoning laws. Some neighbors objected to the presence of AIDS patients and complained that the home is an unlicensed medical facility.
Some women who discover they have AIDS wind up in shelters for the homeless. City officials say it is impossible to know how many shelter residents are infected with the AIDS virus because there is no widespread testing. Shelter workers say that residents often conceal their illness because they fear harassment or eviction.
Since January, the House of Ruth, the city's largest women's shelter, has housed six women who had AIDS or a less severe form of the disease known as AIDS-related complex.
Smith said she was tested for AIDS in June 1986 when she entered Howard University Hospital to deliver her fourth child. She failed to keep a follow-up appointment and did not learn the result. At the time, she had a $ 200 per day cocaine and heroin habit, which Smith said she supported by selling drugs at 12th and U streets NW.
Smith said she had known addicts who had died of AIDS, which is transmitted in blood and semen. Although she was fastidious about not letting other people use her needles, she did share syringes.
"People on the street talk about AIDS and they know about it, but they share all the time," said Smith, who learned she had AIDS when she was admitted to D.C. General last August.
For the seven months after her diagnosis, Smith endured tuberculosis, chronic diarrhea and severe leg pain that left her unable to walk. Her weight dwindled to 79 pounds, and doctors doubted she would survive. She often felt isolated. Her three daughters, ages 7, 10 and 17, live with relatives and visited infrequently. Her infant son -- who tested positive for the virus at birth because his mother was infected but now shows no signs of infection -- was placed with a foster family. Her friends visited for a while and then stopped coming. Even though her "buddy" assigned by the Whitman-Walker Clinic visited faithfully, Smith was lonely. "Sometimes it feels like I'm discriminated against because I don't know anybody else with AIDS," she said. "I would like to be part of a support group or something."
"I'm not sure I really prepared myself for this," she said sadly, in a soft voice. "Sometimes people will say it's a wrong diagnosis, that I have a bad case of hepatitis, and I do get kind of hopeful."
By late March, Smith's condition had improved and doctors decided she was well enough to leave the hospital. Once the acute infection associated with AIDS has been treated, most patients do not require the expensive technology that hospitals provide and fare better in a more home-like environment. But her social worker, Elizabeth Vegas, was stymied. Because Smith was then using a wheelchair, she could not legally be discharged without suitable housing.
"Whitman-Walker didn't have any room, D.C. Village wouldn't take her unless she had a private room and none was available. There was just no place for her," Vegas recalled. "I had the doctors on my back to discharge her until one day I turned to one of them and said, 'Okay, you take her home.' "
Several weeks later, Vegas received a letter from Tesconi, announcing plans to open the house for women. Other residents are expected to move in this month, among them a mother and her baby, both of whom have AIDS. Rent, food and other expenses will be paid by Damien, which has raised money from private sources, many of them Catholic parishes and religious orders.
Although a doctor has agreed to serve as a consultant, residents are expected to arrange their own medical care. Smith will be treated at D.C. General.
Smith said she anticipates spending more time with her children, especially the son she has rarely seen.
"I want to be in my son's life and I would like to see him [permanently] in some type of home with stability," she said. "The joy of seeing him would be more or less for me. He might hang on to the memory or he might not."