AIDS Walk to raise funds


DEFA provides assistance

A mother who can’t afford a coat for her child. A new hire with no cash for a work uniform. A son who needs money for a cross-country trip to see his dying mother.

These are examples of HIV-positive individuals who have been recipients of the Damien Center’s emergency support. The Indiana AIDS Fund’s Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) program makes the assistance possible. And the upcoming AIDS Walk makes the DEFA fund possible: The walk is the only fund-raiser for this vital program.

According to Stephen Everett, Indiana AIDS Fund director, the DEFA fund is used exclusively for expenses that are urgent and short-term. HIV/AIDS clients statewide have been helped with medication co-pays, rent and utility bills, transportation,clothing, food and unexpected expenses.

“If a mother walks in with three kids and she has no money,” Everett said, “she may have to choose between paying her gas bill and buying shoes for her 6-year-old for school. The Damien Center can sit down with her and figure out: OK, we can get help from the city for the heating bill, we can use HOPWA [Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS] for the other utilities and we can use DEFA to buy the little girl’s shoes.”

Raising funds for DEFA is more critical than ever this year because of changes in federal guidelines that would take away the state’s 2007 HOPWA dollars. HOPWA covers urgent short-term housing-related expenses, relieving some of the demand on the DEFA fund. If the expected changes go through, Everett said, “Our DEFA program will be hit hard.”

Adding to the fund-raiser’s importance, the Damien Center’s client base is increasing since the June move to its current near-Eastside location. Chris Ittenbach, the center’s development director, said the center now has about 1,400 clients; other Marion County HIV/AIDS agencies combined have about 600.

Meanwhile, current estimates put the county’s undiagnosed HIV-positive people at about 750. Completing the picture of need in Marion County, nearly 1,200 diagnosed people are not receiving services. “The undiagnosed positives in Marion County alone are staggering,” Ittenbach said, noting the Damien Center’s renewed emphasis on community outreach.

The agency’s move was guided by findings from a nine-month research study of both clients and community leaders. Results showed that the community is looking to the Damien Center to lead the way in HIV/AIDS care. A key component to that leadership involves breaking down barriers that keep people from the services. 

Located on an east-west bus route, the new facility is more accessible to potential and current clients. The renovated school building boasts three stories and adds about 5,000 square feet of space to the agency.

The new building also has a state-of-the-art HIV testing and prevention center with expanded hours and a completely separate entrance and phone line, offering greater privacy than the previous location. The Damien Center currently performs 1,500 tests per year, with a goal of increasing to 2,000 per year.

The Centers for Disease Control recently recommended that all patients in health care settings should be tested for HIV upon notification, unless they decline. People at high risk for HIV infection should be tested annually. According to Dr. Janet Arnow, medical director of Marion County Health Department’s Bell Flower Clinic, far too many HIV-positive people are unaware of their status.

Another trend is the disproportionate impact of HIV on minorities. Arnow said that among women diagnosed at the Bell Flower Clinic, about 70 percent are African-American, even though this demographic makes up only 24 percent of the population of Indianapolis. “In men, it runs about even between blacks and whites, but that still means blacks are disproportionately affected.”

Ittenbach said the Damien Center is making cultural sensitivity a priority, particularly in the key area of care coordination. Founded in 1987, the agency by default began as “a gay white male-oriented organization.” But the years have shown that HIV affects everyone.

The Oct. 15 AIDS Walk fund-raising goal is $150,000. Registrations and donations are accepted at the fund-raiser’s Web site,