I’ll never forget the day I walked through the doors of Being Alive Los Angeles.
I had been diagnosed a few months and services with other area ASO’s (AIDS Service Organizations) were not going well at all. I was already well over a year into homelessness and the night before I was in a pretty bad fight for my laptop and digital camera down on Skid Row. I hadn’t been able to shower in over a month and as far as HIV was concerned I was completely lost and feeling very defeated. I was angry and so used to having to demand services from places I had to turn to for help, so used to being told to fill out boat loads of paperwork, give my ID, proof of diagnoses and all kinds of other things only to be told “Ok Mr. Carr someone will call you in a few days to set up an appointment…….be patient, because it’s a process”
Craig Taylor was sitting at the desk and as I walked through the door his smile made me feel so welcome. He told me his name. I told him mine and said I was there to meet with someone about being a member. He smiled, told me to have a seat and someone would be right with me. He then offered me some water.
I have to be honest and say that I was very uncomfortable, because no one had been this nice to me in a very long time and since being diagnosed no one had shaken my hand, much less offer me something to drink. As I said I was homeless, so I was used to being spoken to and treated less than a piece of gum on the sidewalk and now that I was HIV-positive I was used to being treated even worse. Even by people, places and things inside the “community”
Craig handed me a clipboard with a single piece of paper on it and this is when I looked at him and said “I’m homeless and I can’t pay any money for anything”. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said “you don’t have to pay anything here.” As I filled out the paperwork I could feel the tears falling down my face, not because I had to say I was homeless, HIV-positive or could not pay, but because how I was being treated and because I had forgotten what it felt like to be human.
Bart was the next person I met. In his office talking with him for just a few minutes he asked “Kengi are you OK?” and this is when I broke down saying “no, I am not OK and I have not been OK for a long time.” I told him I was tired and hungry. I told him how lost I was when it came to HIV and how I felt like I was going to die, only to become another statistic. I explained how I had already changed doctors three times since being diagnosed because I didn’t trust the care I was getting. I literally broke down and balled. I felt safe, so I just let go of some shit that I was carrying.
I had my head in my hands looking down at the floor; Bart placed one hand on my shoulder and the other hand on the top of my back. “It’s OK, Kengi, just let it go.” When I was finally able to look up I could see that Bart had tears on his face and needed the box of tissues more than I did.
From that day forward Being Alive became my safe place, the one and only agency I could turn to for unconditional love and support. There were times after chemotherapy when I had no other place to go, but Bart, Kevin, Craig or Gabriel would let me into the ceramic studio to allow me to rest. Bart also made sure I had access to water and a few times took my backpack filled with the few clothes I had and he would wash them for me.
Being Alive is the only organization that I can say was my blessing in the storm. They never treated me like a client or some poor homeless person. They treated me like a friend….like family. They helped me feel good about myself and when I shared my Do Something Saturday outreach that I created just a few weeks into homelessness, they embraced it and encouraged me to move forward with it. They were my wheel in the middle of the wheel and I will never forget that. What they provided for me has been unmatched by any other organization.
On June 29, 2009, twenty-nine months of homelessness came to an end and Being Alive was right there to help me celebrate. I called the office to announce that I finally had a place to call home. Not some SRO prison down on Skid Row, but a real apartment in Hollywood, with a view of the Hollywood Sign and Capitol Records. I remember how happy they all were for me. When I finally was able to see Bart and Daniel they held me so tight and when I saw Craig to tell him the good news the smile on his face was even brighter than the day I met him. I finally had a place for all the ceramics and bowls I created at the ceramic studio and just this morning I ate my oatmeal from one of the bowls I made there.
Sp when John called to ask if I would consider photographing this year’s Spirit of Hope Awards, once again Being Alive offered me something that no other agency has ever done, not just a chance to use my skills as a photographer, but a paid gig, which allowed me to pay all my own bills and rent for next month, including buying my own food without having to ask my dear friends to help me. I was both blown away and humbled that they thought of me.
When I learned that Craig was one of the people being honored, my heart jumped and right away my thoughts went back to the very first day I met him and how he has become someone I truly admire and respect. But this is true about all the staff at Being Alive. Each of them holds such special places in my heart. Ask anyone in my small circle of friends and they will tell you “Kengi loves Being Alive” and they know just how much Being Alive provided me with so much in my time of need and how they continue to be such a huge part of my life through my homeless outreaches, my HIV peer support and education programs and even helping clients transition from homelessness to housing with respectful organizations far away from Skid Row.
As I get ready to celebrate my hard fought battle through homelessness and five years of LIVING with HIV, thanks in part to my awesome doctor. whom I trust completely (Dr. Ardis Moe) and great genetics from my parents that allow me to fight this virus so far without the assistance of HIV medications, I am so thankful to God for the day he allowed someone in Germany who was reading my blog and seeing all that I was going through and then telling me about Being Alive and a man named Bart.
I am so thankful that God answered my prayers when I cried out begging him to send me some relief and he sent it through the awesome staff at Being Alive. I’m so thankful that when things start to get rough, I know I can easily pick up my camera, put Dodger on his leash and walk from Hollywood to West Hollywood to the Being Alive offices. Just seeing a smiling face there makes everything alright
All I really want you to know is that when you find yourself in a midnight hour and if you haven’t, baby you will, there are a few things you must do to survive.
1) Connect to your higher being. (Mine is God)
2) Never stop believing in yourself
3) If you live in or near LA, Get over to Being Alive.
If I had a million dollars to give, I would give it to Being Alive. Since I only have my time, talents and gifts that God still sees fit to bless me with, then I will use them to support Being Alive because they truly understand HIV care and support. They truly get what it means to suit up and show up for people in need.
So to the staff of Being Alive, THANK YOU for loving me, accepting me and treating me with kindness and the utmost respect. THANK YOU for your unconditional love and support. Thank you for being the Spirit of Hope for all of your members and for being the model for what is possible when caring for people with HIV or AIDS come FIRST at all times. Thank you for doing the hard work all the time for people like me without failure, without excuse and with compassion, integrity and respect. Thank you for never treating me or any of your members as a fundraising tool. I n the words of Sheryl Lee Ralph thank you for loving us just the way we are. YOU ROCK!!!
The 20th Annual Sprit of Hope Awards was held in West Hollywood at the beautiful Mondrian Hotel on the heart of the Sunset Strip. The evening featured performances by the new cast of RENT while Los Angeles based comedian Jason Dudey was the Master of Ceremonies. Spirit of Hope Awards honorees were Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dr. Tony Mills and Craig Taylor for their unmatched work for people LIVING with HIV or AIDS.
Photos from the Spirit of Hope Awards