At one time being HIV-positive in America was an almost certain death sentence. But today, thanks to new drugs and early detection, living with AIDS is just that: living. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that there may be as many as 950,000 people in the United States who are HIV-positive. Approximately 1100 of those people live in West Virginia. A organization known as Covenant House attempts to improve the quality of life for HIV-positive West Virginians by offering them residential homes complete with care. Names have been changed for the story.
The 1980's may not seem so very long ago, but for people with Acquired Immuno-deficiency Syndrome it was another lifetime. Fear of the unknown caused many people with AIDS to be rejected by everyone including their families. Alone, sick and unable to care for themselves, many became homeless. Learning he was HIV-positive was so life altering, that Butch, who was 25 at the time remembers the exact date he was diagnosed.
"I found out I was HIV-positive November 12 of '89," he said. "The first thing was I thought, Oh my gosh, you're going to die. But now it's 2003, so I haven't passed away."
Around that same time, counselors at Covenant House in Charleston, West Virginia recognized that there was a great need for people like Butch to have safe reliable housing. Julie Britton-Hayden says that's when the organization built its first AIDS residence.
"The houses are fully furnished with new furniture, nice, they're very beautiful homes," she said. "All the utilities are paid. Supportive services above and beyond what's in the house, we have nutritional supplements if they need them, we have a food pantry, medication."
Most of those who came to the residence in the beginning didn't have a very long life expectancy, and it gained a reputation as an AIDS hospice, instead of a home for support and care.
Meanwhile, Butch and his HIV-positive lover Jonathan Edward struggled with their declining health.
"When I was fist diagnosed, they put me on AZT," said Butch. "That medication is nightmarish for some people. For me it took my life away. I would see things out of the corner of my eye, that I knew weren't there. I knew they weren't there but it started playing tricks with my mind. I had diarrhea bad, I couldn't focus, I was working with other people's money so I had to quit."
Without the income from his job in the fashion industry, Butch and Jon were in dire straits. That's when Jon's long-time friend Weeza made the couple an offer they couldn't refuse.
"I said let's move in together I'll feed you, take care of you, whatever you need, that's what we did," said Weeza. "Raised a child and became a family."
While the unconventional family had support from each other, they didn't have much stability. It was hard to find housing because few landlords wanted to rent to them, Weeza was chastised for exposing her young son to people with AIDS, and since few doctors at that time had experience treating AIDS patients, proper medical care was hard to come by.
"People started treating us strange, when I first started coming out and telling people about us, pretty soon they didn't come around any more…," she said. "We had to masquerade as a couple and he was my brother…"
Eventually they moved to North Carolina to find better doctors for Butch. It was then, Jon says, that the whole family decided to take part in a series of experimental HIV drug tests.
"I always said if I were ever positive I would be a guinea pig," said Jon. "I'm almost 50, I've lost a lot of friends. I wanted to help stop it."
Back in Charleston, the first Covenant House AIDS Residence had become so popular, the organization set up two more homes. Residents may stay as long as they need to, whether it's a couple of weeks, or the rest of their lives. Those who can afford to, pay rent. The organization covers costs for those who can't.
Julie Britton-Hayden says the homes creates a sense of community and provides quality care for those who were, and still are, often treated as outcasts.
"It is beneficial to be around people who have shared experiences who can say I know what you're feeling, or even hey, I was on that medication last year and here's what you can expect," said Ms. Britton-Hayden. "That is very important."
After five years in North Carolina, Butch, Jon, Weeza and her son moved back to West Virginia, and began to take advantage of the services offered by Covenant House. Butch remembers when Julie Britton-Hayden told them about the AIDS Residences.
"How would you guys feel about moving from a two bedroom apartment to a five bedroom three and a half bath house," he said. "We looked at each other like ahhh, when?"
When the family visited their new home for the first time, Weeza says, it was almost as if they could feel the presence of those who'd lived and died there… not a ghostly feeling, but one of comfort as if someone was watching over them.
"We walked in this house and it was like, this was meant to be," she said. "This is our home. This is where we'll finish our lives I believe. I think it was meant for us to have this."
That was three years ago. Butch and Jonathan are no longer lovers, but still live in the residence and consider themselves close family. Their main focus now is taking care of Weeza, who has become sick, not with an AIDS-related illness, but with a serious lung condition. Her son is grown and soon to be married. Butch spends his time gardening and fishing while Jonathan Edward is helping restore an old bar in the Charleston area. He says he's not sure why he and Butch have survived but believes it has something to do with taking care of themselves… something Covenant House has helped them do, by giving them a home and sense of stability.
The family enjoys living in the AIDS residence so much that they are looking into buying the home, and Weeza says, if Covenant House needs future assistance, they'll take in other HIV positive people.
"If it was somebody that really, really needed a place, yes we would take them in and help take care of them," she said. "We have no problem with that at all."
However that may never be necessary. Better education, earlier testing and more effective drugs have changed the prognosis for people living with AIDS. Julie Britton-Hayden says today, the Covenant House facilities in Charleston and two others elsewhere in the state are often used just as traditional housing.
"In 1989 it was here for people who were coming home to die, and now it's here for people who are coming home to live," said Ms. Britton-Hayden.
Since 1989, Covenant House has provided housing for 95 people with HIV and serves 180 more in elsewhere in the state through rural outreach and support services.