Brentwood's protests have given way to a calmer acceptance of AIDS patients living there

As part of the latter effort, another cottage is about to open that will house homeless pregnant teens and young women. The plan is to give them a place to stay during their pregnancy and for six weeks after giving birth, then set them up in their own apartment elsewhere.

Ratliff acknowledges that if he had it to do over again, he would have held church/community meetings explaining why he wanted to house AIDS patients in bungalows.

At the time, he says, he countered his opponents with love. "We continued to minister to these people, to love them." But he certainly retains a measure of starch, as he adds, "We made it clear their support was desired, not critical."

Project director Willie Sylvester says the community now understands the church's mission.
Houston Press
Project director Willie Sylvester says the community now understands the church's mission.

He'll have been with the church 20 years next February. When he arrived it had 400 members, with only 200 in regular attendance. It now numbers 10,000 and draws congregants from all over the area. Ratliff calls Brentwood a large middle-class church that he has tried to move along the lines of his reading of Scripture, which is that Christians are required by God "to help the disinherited, the disenfranchised."

"This was a church that was charging the Girl Scouts years ago to meet here," Ratliff says. No outsiders. There had been some significant changes. But when it got to the AIDS housing, Ratliff says, when it meant bringing outsiders in, fear and paranoia reigned.

Mary White is the project director of Brentwood's new program for young pregnant women. A high-risk obstetrical nurse with 20 years' experience, White, as a part-time worker at St. Luke's Hospital, began noticing the increase in the number of women giving birth who were HIV-positive.

"One day I walked in, and there was a 14year-old there, HIV-positive. This just upset me so much." As weeks went on, it became commonplace that from one to four obstetrical patients on the floor was HIV-positive, she says.

There was a woman in her late twenties, pregnant and HIV-positive, who allowed her HIV-positive cousin, who also had tuberculosis, and her cousin's two children to move in with her. White says the physician on the case was beside himself. With the depressed immune system of an HIV patient, the last thing this woman could tolerate was someone with TB around her. But, the patient said, her cousin had nowhere to live.

Then there was the patient from Corpus Christi, young and very ill. "We couldn't find a physician in Corpus who would treat her." She was taken into the hospital here in Houston and treated there till she was well enough to go home.

"What's needed?" White asked. "Housing," the doctor replied.

Another young woman arrived from the Beaumont area, where it is also impossible to find a doctor who'll treat HIV-positive pregnant women, according to White. She was nearing the final stage of pregnancy but wasn't in labor. She needed a place to stay, to wait. There wasn't one. So the doctor had no choice but to admit her to the hospital and deliver the baby early.

White resolved to find or build a place for these young women to stay in the hopes of delivering them to the labor room in better physical health, better educated about caring for themselves and their babies and with much improved chances for their infants.

She does this, she explains, "because I am concerned about my race." White says she learned at a recent medical conference that if the rate of black AIDS deaths continues, the African-American portion of the U.S. population, now 12.5 percent, will be reduced to 6.75 to 7 percent.

Caseworker Terri Jones has a cottage with five men in it. Two are on disability and do volunteer work with AIDS organizations in town. The others have jobs.

The men in the Brentwood program come from prison or off the street, Jones says. To get in, they have to be homeless and HIV-positive. The usual stay is six months to a year.

There are three units housing up to six residents each. Jones coordinates her efforts with caseworkers from other AIDS agencies to avoid duplicating services. Her job is to get the men settled, to get them thinking about long-term goals and to get them to take an active role in decisions about their lives.

She has had friends who were HIV-positive; she has had friends and clients die. Sometimes there's time to prepare for the death, sometimes not. She tries to help the families left behind.

She likes the group she has now and will be sorry to see them go, she says. One has been in the hospital since before Thanksgiving, and the others go visit him, take him gifts. The one who is having the hardest time is the man whose family is overseas. He has bad mood swings, Jones says, adding that it's always hardest for those who have no one else.

One thing Jones dislikes is that by the very nature of the disease, AIDS brings an end to privacy. There are the countless physical examinations, the random drug tests, the paperwork for an individual's funding to be filled out. "That's one of the problems of the HIV community now," Jones says. "We're in everybody's business."

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