Rants by Frank Rodriguez
The non-profit AIDS Healthcare Foundation was founded in 1987 and is the largest HIV/AIDS organization in the world offering free HIV treatment to 820,000 patients in 39 countries. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the AHF has been no stranger to controversy. It’s President, Michael Weinstein is a polarizing figure, advocating increased condom use instead of relying on the Prep pill and used $5.5 million of AHF funds to sponsor a failed anti-development ballot initiative to slow gentrification in L.A. as AHF is a big advocate for the homeless. Some people see their attention-grabbing billboards showing the graphic effects of STDs as sex shaming and fear-mongering while crosstown rival LGBT Center advocates Prep use with billboards that preach “Fxck without fear.”
I contacted Alexander Goncalbez at AHF more than a year ago about the Mobile Testing Units, the three trucks that cover the LA area, providing free, confidential HIV testing, mostly at night when testing at their three area walk-in clinics and the testing centers in the Out of the Closet thrift stores are closed (anyone who has been to these facilities knows how overcrowded they are with people desperate for testing and medical services). The rapid test the AHF uses starts with a simple finger prick and a couple drops of blood. The test is highly sensitive with a relatively short window and takes only 1 minute to show results. LGBT folks in Los Angeles are fortunate to have these mobile units among the other free testing options AHF provides. When I spoke to the friendly, charming Goncalbez on the phone one morning, I expressed my concern that besides the one truck that is at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica Blvd. every day in West Hollywood, there was no easy way to find out where the other truck might be on any given night when someone wanted to get tested. There is a Facebook page for the MTU called LA Nightriders but their posts are not daily and only sometimes mention daily locations. This Facebook page is not referenced anywhere on the AHF site nor does it easily come up with a web search. In fact, there is no optimization to find these free nighttime testing trucks. They have no Twitter (although I saw something about there being a Snapchat account now). I suggested to him that the AHF have their tech savvy MTU employees post their testing locations on the Facebook page every night and also announce their changing locations on Twitter like the popular food trucks do. Most importantly, I suggested they hire a professional to optimize their pages and sites so people looking online for “LA nighttime HIV testing” or “LA HIV testing trucks” could find them easily. Goncalbez said he was excited by my ideas and was happy to have feedback from the public. He mentioned he would bring them up in the next meeting. I told him that these were obvious ideas and that most 12-year-olds could create a Twitter account and post nightly on Facebook. But I was happy to be heard by him and hopeful after over 10 years of my complaining about this situation to employees of the mobile testing trucks. And then, nothing. After a few weeks, I started leaving daily phone messages for Goncalbez and never heard back. Frustrated, I reached out to an LGBT community leader who emailed Michael Weinstein directly with my concerns. Weinstein sent an email to Goncalbez asking him to employ Facebook and Twitter to let people know the locations of the trucks to no avail. Last night, I saw a 9:30pm LA Nightriders Facebook post with a testing location near Silver Lake. At 10:30pm, I got in my car and drove there but found no truck, only disappointment again. It shouldn’t be this hard. Others needing this service might give up and without knowing their status, continue to have unsafe sex and possibly spreading HIV.
The AHF get funding from many sources, from the government to individuals donating. The staff for the mobile testing units is excellent, compassionate and informed. The three MTU trucks are state of the art and must cost a few hundred thousand dollars each (two trucks are out testing every night and can’t come back until they test at least one person). The rapid tests they use are expensive and the best of what’s available. Yet on the occasions I’ve happened across one of the trucks in front of the Eagle bar in Silver Lake or near Los Angeles Community College, few if any people are getting tested. The testers are sitting in the trucks on their cell phones texting friends but not posting their location. This excellent and needed HIV testing service is being wasted because no one knows where the trucks are, especially people most at risk, people who might not want to be seen at one of the clinics. Many of my friends are aware that the trucks exist but besides the one planted in West Hollywood, they wouldn’t know where to find them. With such great and precious resources at their disposal, the AHF needs to help increase awareness for and market this nighttime mobile testing service and make it much easier to find it. A downloadable app with GPS tracking on the trucks would be even more ideal but that seems like a pipedream when basic Facebook and Twitter posts present such a challenge. The fact that this failure has been tolerated for over a decade speaks to an insular non-profit culture that doesn’t hold itself to basic standards that any business would expect and demand. If AHF can’t handle this very simple thing in the city of their headquarters, imagine the other ways they waste manpower and public money on the huge scale they work (remember that those hand-out condoms aren’t really free, someone is paying for them). More than anything, an HIV testing truck struggling to find one person to test is a terrible shame and one that has negatively impacted the most vulnerable individuals in our community.