- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Linda Ashby has battled drug addiction and a stroke, but she would be the first to say that it is a struggle to wake up each morning and gulp down a dozen pills to battle AIDS.

She also would say that she refuses to become another statistic of the virus that she contracted more than 12 years ago.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with is getting a hand on this full-blown AIDS,” she said, but it’s “not going to take me out. I’m going to give it a fight.”

Miss Ashby, 49, is one of 15 women who live at Miriam’s House, a community-style residence in Northwest for formerly homeless women living with HIV and AIDS, often coupled with alcohol and drug recovery.

Some live there with their children as they undergo counseling, hospice and other services to prepare for death.

Most, however, are mothers and grandmothers who have had the virus for 12 to 20 years. They have left behind their lives of molestation, parental neglect, drug abuse, prostitution and crime to work on college degrees and better futures.

Executive Director Carol D. Marsh and her husband, Tim Fretz, opened the home 10 years ago to combat what was a growing stigma against the 3 percent of homeless people looking for HIV or AIDS help in D.C. shelters.

Homeless men with HIV and AIDS could go to Joseph’s House, a housing community in Northwest, but there was no such place for infected homeless women.

“Homeless persons in D.C. were dying in the streets or alone in hospitals,” Ms. Marsh said. “The vision of Miriam’s House was to provide a place where a person feels like they’re home and people care.”

The D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice last year criticized the District’s HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, saying the city remained 10 to 15 years behind in preventive measures. About one in 20 D.C. residents has HIV, about one in 50 has AIDS, and the District’s rate of new infection is nearly 12 times the national average — the highest of any major U.S. city, the center found.

A report card that the center released yesterday shows that the District still lags in routine HIV testing, data collection from the prison population and condom distribution.

Women with drug and alcohol addictions tend to feel the sting the most, organizers and residents at Miriam’s House say.

“There is a strong link between addiction and getting AIDS,” Ms. Marsh said. “For women in particular, living that kind of life [and] the kind of behaviors … they do to get the drugs they want put them very much at risk.”

Black women especially are at risk because more black married men are engaging in homosexual sex, and black churches tend to downplay the prevalence of the disease, organizers and residents say.

“In the African-American community, we still have difficulty talking about cancer,” said Maria Brooks, 54, who has HIV. “We have to bring the issue out to the front and deal with it because this is just a disease. We have it; it doesn’t have us.”

Each woman at Miriam’s House has turned her illness into positive reinforcement for others.

“When I heard [I was HIV-]positive, I decided I wanted to live my life positively,” Charlene Cotton, 44, said of when she was diagnosed three years ago. “Now the passion for being positive is a passion to tell someone else it’s not a death sentence. You can live a full, productive life.”

Living in a house full of women has its ups and downs, residents say. But, the encouragement and the camaraderie outweigh any tiffs.

“We squawk like all women do, but when it’s time for us to be lifted up, we can do anything,” Miss Ashby said. “I think the best thing to help you with this disease is to get a couple women together to talk about it.”

MIRIAM’S HOUSE:

Founded: 1996

Contact: Carol D. Marsh, executive director, 202/667-1758, Ext. 105. E-mail: [email protected] Web site: www.miriamshouse.org

Employees: Nine full-time, three part-time and four interns

Background: Miriam’s House is a 20-room residence for formerly homeless women living with HIV and AIDS.

Source: Miriam’s House

The Washington Times

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