By Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
In the mid 1980’s an Oceanside man Ray Bierle opened his home to care for homeless and chronically ill individuals affected by the AIDS virus. He saw a need as many people infected were evicted from their homes and turned away by family friends due to the fear that the AIDS crisis fueled. When his neighbors questioned why so many people lived in the house, his answer was, “Tell them it’s a fraternity house.” Fraternity House, Inc. was born, and incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit in 1988. Fraternity House opened a second location in Vista the Michaelle House, named after Michaelle Liddell, one of the first straight white women in Southern California to publicly acknowledge her HIV status and became a ferocious campaigner for resources for those persons with AIDS.
Now, 30 years later, Fraternity House provides around the clock care, housing, three meals a day, and many rehabilitative programs that include extensive case management, activity programs, education and transportation. Which is a big change from its humbler beginnings.
Executive Director Matt Harding began working with Fraternity House in July, 2017. He saw the posting for the job after losing his mother who passed away in January, 2017 and was looking to find work that fulfilled his wish to help people. Having been in the non-profit sector for a decade, Fraternity House was exactly what he was looking for.
“When I saw that this job had to do with HIV, a very important thing to me,” Harding said. “I’ve lived with HIV my whole life and I am an HIV negative person. My first partner was positive in the 90s before reliable drugs. He was going through blood transfusions, lymphadenectomies, and all the witch doctor things that were happening then. All of my long-time partners have been HIV+ and my current partner is HIV+ as well. So the cause has always been very close to me and [this job] seemed like a very good fit for me.”
Harding said the number one need for everyone is to remove the stigma that surrounds HIV and AIDS and to not see it as a barrier for others or ourselves.
“We are living in the age of antiretroviral and one magic pill a day can save somebody’s life,” Harding said. “But that one pill a day assumes an awful lot of privilege. It assumes access to healthcare, a refrigerator for medicines, getting a meal a day, that your drugs aren’t going to get stolen, that you have the cognitive ability to remember or even the physical capacity due to other illnesses.”
Harding said that is why Fraternity House is still needed today and that there are so many blockades that can keep a person from benefiting from antiretroviral treatment.
“Which is so silly because if you can keep that one thing at bay you can address all of the other issues,” Harding said. “But it starts with that. What we are doing is taking people that can literally slip through the cracks. Not only could their story have an unhappy ending, but they could also become a burden on our society, our emergency rooms, contribute to the HIV rate and the rising homeless community.”
Harding said Fraternity House had already been making changes into adopting a more rehabilitative model because of the longevity that antiretrovirals provide. They had reached a point where some long-term residents didn’t need the level of care that was being provided there but had nowhere else to go.
“They had kind of a blueprint of what they wanted to do, and it was all based around the idea of goal setting and encouraging people to move on to full independence,” Harding said. “That hinged on activities, getting people out and about and active, giving them opportunities to learn how to administer their own medicines, how to cook for themselves, and basic things. We saw immediately that there was an opportunity for a lower level of care for people but could probably still benefit with connection to services.”
Fraternity House opted to look into a scattered site master lease model where it rents apartments, furnishes them, then subleases them to clients at sliding rates as it does in its homes. Fraternity House opened two in January with two veterans each and it is opening another two bedrooms and one apartment in July. Also in October, 2018, Fraternity House changed an office space back into a bedroom at its house in Vista, adding two more beds at that facility.
Care givers are the largest portion of Fraternity House’s staff at 14, with two administrative, two program and two rehabilitative staff members.
“It’s been exciting to see that growth. We had 18 in July, 2017 when I started and here in July, we will have 26 clients,” Harding said. “The bigger part that has had to grow along with that is the rehabilitative programs. It’s beyond just taking folks to the movies or out to eat. It’s about giving them freedom through a new transportation program where they are free to go out and do what they want and bringing in intensive case management on-site. It has been hard to connect everybody with case managers and this way they have someone who knows them, is with them around the clock and can really advocate for them.”
Harding said that it is also bringing in people with skill sets also to deal with behavioral issues like substance abuse, and the problems that come from having lived on the streets.
“It’s tough,” Harding said. “Learning to trust, learning that you don’t have to carry all of your stuff around with you everywhere. It’s tough bringing someone off the streets at first, because you know what they’ve been through and it is so foreign to them to be housed again and living in a co-ed environment. It’s great what we provide, but these things bring challenges on a personal level and they have to adapt.”
Harding said everyone at Fraternity House has been mindful as it welcomes in new residents in telling them what the program does, what is expected from them and the opportunity that is there that they are expected to take advantage of. “That’s where having staff that have that training come in handy in determining the needs of each client,” said Harding.
“One of the first things we did when I arrived was a visit to the houses so I could get to know the clients,” Harding continued. “We separated into two groups, talked about what we had in common and what was different about us in our separate groups. We then got back together to share and illustrate what we had in common. It was so striking because this one person who was speaking for her group said the one thing they had in common is that ‘We are all fighters and survivors.’ That really put in contrast for me how these people viewed themselves and how they want to be assisted, but not necessarily helped. There is already something there that they want to do. They’ve already survived something and now they want to grow and build.”
Clients, in the past have come mainly from case managers, hospitals and sometimes from prisons and those still remain sources for Fraternity House. As the program has expanded, it has transitioned more towards independence, and clients moving back in with families. Fraternity House has partnered with Choices in Recovery, reaching out to local community clinics, Pozabilities, and other organizations. Harding said Fraternity House also takes people that refer themselves, coming out of another program that isn’t as comfortable for them.
“The best thing is that we are working with people that are actually going to go out and make a change in the world as well,” Harding said. “We have a client that is moving on but is also staying on to be a volunteer as a peer navigator for HIV services, so the investment also comes right back.”
Because Fraternity House is federally funded, that pays for a lot of the base services. All the money that it raises from individual donors and other grants goes to its rehabilitative programs. But Harding said there is still the need for fundraising to keep all of its growing services thriving.
“Fraternity House has a tradition of Fraternity Feasts, which are a few different fundraisers, some hosted by other groups and some hosted by us,” Harding said. “Currently, we are also looking at pledge circle member programs, which is a monthly giving program. We do Sharing by Moonlight with the Moonlight Amphitheatre which is a dinner and a show. We are inaugurating this year a Gospel Brunch fundraiser in October. We are working with the Human Dignity Foundation which gives us an opportunity to honor those in the community of faith who have been of service to the LGBT HIV communities.”
There will be live entertainment. Babette Schwartz has agreed to emcee for this event at Martini’s Above Fourth on Oct.12.
“So you are investing in helping someone being all that they can be,” Harding said. “Whether it is with us or another organization, get out there and volunteer.”
Fraternity House is in the Elfin Forest in Escondido, with eight beds. Michaelle House in Vista has 12 beds.
“We have our eyes set on growth, definitely more apartments and are looking at what other types of housing models we could use,” Harding said. “For example, something that is not Residential Care Facility, a state licensed long-term care for the chronically ill. We’ve been looking at having a place in Hillcrest. We would love to have a place where we could bring people with HIV in right away, triage them and define them as short term or move them into one of our longer-term programs, link them with services, case management, somewhere between emergency and bridge housing.”
— Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.