Why AHF Launched Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative
By Michael Weinstein -- For 30 years, AIDS Healthcare Foundation has fought social justice battles against governments that fail to serve the people, but are only too happy to help the powerful. We are engaged in that fight today in Los Angeles.
In the mid-1980s, AIDS Healthcare Foundation began with a few friends who fought an ignorant and fear-based statewide initiative to physically quarantine the earliest people with AIDS — we gathered 4,000 people to march in the streets with torches to the L.A. campaign headquarters of the right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche.
We then set up the first licensed hospice in L.A. that helped those dying of the horrible illness, raising enough money to open a 25-bed facility. Many of our dearest friends died there — and eventually the hospice helped 1,500 people die with dignity. We learned how crucial housing is to those in need.
But we had to fight our own government — L.A. County was putting enormous obstacles in the way of those trying to help people with AIDS.
We have had to continually fight governments as we grew into the largest HIV/AIDS organization in the world, now treating nearly 700,000 people — regardless of ability to pay. We work in 15 states and 39 countries. We employ 5,400 staff, including hundreds of nurses and doctors. Starting with $50,000 in 1987, we now operate with a $1.4 billion budget.
In South Africa, in 2001, Congresswoman Diane Watson and I were pressured to not open a clinic during a time when government officials were disastrously claiming HIV did not cause AIDS and that the medications themselves were poison. We persisted, and AHF's history-making clinics in South Africa now serve more than 100,000 people.
Around the globe, we have battled slow-moving bureaucracies whose lack of urgency has contributed to the spread of a disease that still kills more than 1 million people a year. In our own country, AHF continues its fight to provide access to care in underserved areas including the Deep South.
"We must stand against the unmitigated greed and corruption that will forever change L.A."
AHF's holistic approach to fighting HIV and other public health threats takes on issues of race, gender, immigration, stigma and income inequality.
Each year, we lead a day of silent protest in South Africa, where women cover their mouths with tape to highlight the silence about the rape epidemic in that country.
We launched a ballot measure effort to remove the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi flag because the biggest burden we face in Mississippi is stigma against HIV/AIDS, and nothing is more stigmatizing than a hateful symbol of slavery. Our Rose Parade float this year honored those closely affected by the Orlando nightclub massacre.
In 2014, we fought the Geneva-based World Health Organization's tragically flawed handling of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, having seen it first-hand through the eyes of our own doctors, two of whom died while treating Ebola patients.
We have confronted other key social justice issues including the homelessness and lack of housing that are widespread among our patients in the U.S. and abroad.
We have witnessed how San Francisco, where AHF has clinics for testing and treatment, has become a rich ghetto. Low-income people by the tens of thousands have been displaced, and diversity is harder and harder to find.
The same thing is unfolding in Los Angeles.
The Board of Directors of AHF has chosen as one of our core values "fight for what is right," and they agree with me that Los Angeles is in the midst of a social justice crisis over what our city becomes, who the government serves and how to empower those without power.
How is it possible that L.A.'s economy is thriving, yet our homelessness for years has been growing?
How is it possible that billionaire developers from around the world are profiting in LA to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars from deals they cut inside our own City Hall — while our working class, middle class and seniors cannot afford the gleaming, luxury housing towers they build?
How is it possible that we can lose 22,000 inexpensive rent-stabilized apartment units without any discussion about how to save them?
How is it possible that L.A. City Hall is rushing to encourage gentrification with no debate or thought over the human displacement they are creating?
How did we end up with so much government injustice in our own Los Angeles?
These urgent questions have not been adequately addressed by City Hall elected leaders, but are at the center of Yes on Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, for which AHF is the primary funder. We face the same powerful status quo that we have seen in every nation, rich or poor, where we fight for social justice.
In this case, we are fighting our elected government and their status quo political and corporate allies who are defending a broken system from which they all benefit.
Non-profit organizations such as AHF are critical to the fabric of life here and across the globe. Civil society should have every bit as much to say about civic issues as any developer, politician or private corporation. In fact, their opinion—unbiased by greed—is even more important.
In this great city where we were born, that we love and have thrived in for three decades, we must take a stand against the unmitigated greed and corruption that will forever change Los Angeles from a welcoming place to one that is only for the privileged. It would be irresponsible for AHF to simply stand by and let that happen.