Homeless and HIV positive at 23, positive about the future at 24

Last year, when he was 23, Dante’s mother—his best friend—died. “I didn’t have a father growing up. It was just me and her against the world.” With no other relatives to turn to and unable to afford the rent on his mother’s apartment, he began living out of his car. With sporadic part-time and low-paying retail work, he lost even that. That’s when he turned to sex work, which allowed him to pay for a motel room for the night. Soon the attractive and intelligent young man with the sparkling personality found a partner who took him in. It was, however, no storybook romance. Yet, through that relationship and all the chaos, Dante emerged from tragedy to a better life. He received life-saving assistance at Howard Brown Health, an LGBTQ health care provider in Chicago, and its Broadway Youth Center. Sitting at BYC, Dante tells his story.

When my mom passed away, I became homeless on the streets of Chicago. I went to doing sex work to be able to get by in hard times. Sex working wasn’t something on my list of things I thought I would ever do in my life. I know there was a risk, but I had to take that risk because I didn’t have a choice. I also had a little bit of drug abuse with cocaine.

I think a lot of young folks fall for the okey-doke. They fall into the trap of, “I don’t have a support system, so I’m going to seek it out by any means necessary.” And any means necessary sometimes means, you know, maybe sleeping around with people for money, maybe sleeping with somebody so we have a roof over our head. Sleeping with somebody so we could put food in our stomach. These are realistic things that I personally can say that I did. I had to sleep with people to be able to sleep at night. I cried at first. I cried because I felt so used. I was naïve.

I ended up being unable to keep my car. I had someone who would have paid for it, but wanted me to be completely submissive to him. I wanted to be a strong and independent person. I was an only child. I’m used to doing things as a loner.

At the time I did not know about the Broadway Youth Center or any drop-in or shelter. So I just lived on the street, in abandoned buildings or at friends’ houses for a time. With sex work, I could get a hotel room for a night, so I had a semi-safe place.

I met my partner through sex work, off Grindr. We were just talking and I just really liked him. So I took a chance and went out on a date with him. I just explained my whole situation. He’s like, “I just want to move you in with me and we’ll go from there. We’ll try to be really good to each other.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened.

He was older than me and I moved in with him. He was 35. At the time I was 23. And I was dealing with a lot, with losing my mom and feeling alone. So I really looked to him for support during that time. Unfortunately, we were both doing cocaine and that’s where the abuse came in. He would always accuse me of going out and cheating and I wasn’t.

I got really, really sick. I was working as an assistant store manager and I kept having days where I was really fatigued and sick-feeling. Throwing up. I just remember passing out on the floor in the bathroom at work. That’s when I knew there was something wrong in my body.

I didn’t know that he was HIV positive—and neither did he.

I was sick but too scared to go to a hospital because hospitals have a way of treating people [negatively]. I didn’t know what HIV was, really. HIV wasn’t talked about in my community, being a Latinx person, a P.O.C. [person of color—his mother was Italian-American, his father Puerto Rican].

We heard about the AIDS crisis, but for me that was years and years and years ago. I wasn’t even born. I’m a ’94 baby. HIV wasn’t something that was talked about. I wish it was, because I think it would have changed my outlook. Probably would have made me a lot safer and … less trusting with my partners. Or more healthy with my partners, I should say.

It wasn’t until I was really, really sick where I couldn’t get out of bed that one of my friends drove me up here, to Howard Brown. They’re like, “You really just need to go to Howard Brown if you don’t want to go anywhere else.”

‘We heard about the AIDS crisis, but for me that was years and years and years ago.’

I was scared going into Howard Brown. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was like an hour sitting in that waiting room, thinking, “Oh, my God. I hope I don’t have anything.” The doctor was very, very nice to me. He said, “Come on back, we’re going to draw some blood and see what’s going on with you.”

He told me they were going to do a rapid test and from the rapid test I would know if I was positive for HIV or if I wasn’t. I wanted to leave at that point. After hearing everything, I really just didn’t want to know the status. Half of me was like, “I don’t think I have it.” I felt invincible at the time. 

My partner wasn’t with me. We had gotten into a big fight because I felt like we needed to go get tested together and he didn’t want to do that. He told me he just thought I was cheating, and that he was going to leave and when he came back, I should be gone.

So I had a bag with me when I went to Howard Brown, full of my clothes, my birth certificate, my Social Security card, some other little items, and my mother’s ashes. I was just sitting there looking at people and thinking, “I just don’t know what to do.” I wanted to cry.

They said, “You are HIV positive.” They said, “Everything is going to be fine, honey. You’re going to be just great.” They gave me a bottle of juice, water, and a cookie. (Laughs.) I thought it was just the weirdest thing. Because I’m like, I’m getting cookies and a snack, while I’m finding out I’m HIV positive.

I just remember crying and crying and crying. Just being like, “Oh, my God. What am I going to do? My life is over.” I think that’s the first thing that goes through your head. I already struggle with depression and anxiety.

So sitting there was like forever. It was probably, realistically, two hours I was in the office.

I didn’t go back to Howard Brown. I left out of there. I just didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to believe I heard what I heard.

They set up an appointment for me to come back in and they did reach out to me. I did not follow up with the appointment, at first. And my symptoms were getting worse and worse. It got to the point where I ended up leaving my job because I just physically couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t walk. I was throwing up. I couldn’t keep food down.

My CD4 count was very low and my viral load was very, very high. I don’t even remember the numbers. I didn’t understand what they mean.

Being young, I felt like I’m never going to be able to find a partner. Nobody’s going to want me. I felt like I was damaged goods. I felt like everyone around me, when they looked at me, could see … there’s something different.

Finally, about three weeks in, I went back to Howard Brown. My case manager over there at the time, who was very nice, he was like, “Look, just try to take it slow.”

I remember starting Genvoya and always being in the bathroom on the toilet. I hated it. It was the most terrible feeling. I always had to take the medicine with food. And I was still homeless at the time. And I didn’t have a job. And I felt like I was living with this big secret that nobody else could understand and could relate to. I wasn’t very adherent. One time I just grabbed the whole bottle and threw it [the pills] down the toilet. [He now takes Biktarvy.]

Then I started getting help over at Howard Brown. My case manager put me in support groups, and I still go to these groups. They’re very, very helpful. I started going to the Broadway Youth Center, and the Youth for Youth program for positive folks at the Center on Halsted [Chicago’s LGBTQ center]. I went to UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] and gotinvolved in a lot of programs, like TWIST [a program for young people].

At the time I didn’t think I was going to relate to anyone. I thought, “Everyone’s going to be older. They’re not going to be around my age.”

And that wasn’t the case. I found more people who were living with HIV and … were … young … people. So they told me pretty much their stories, about how it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was. 

I met someone a little older who told me, “Look, honey, it’s going to be okay. You need to take your medications.” She’s like, “Guess what? You’re not the only one with a secret.” She said, “I’m positive too and I have been for eight years. And it gets better.”

So she really became my rock and my best friend.

It took a lot of energy, a lot of eating right and healthy practices to get my body back to where it should have been. I still struggle with my own self-care. I think self-care is very hard for most people. As a young person, it becomes even harder, especially when you’re homeless.

I’m thankful I’m housed now. But it’s still a struggle, trying to do advocacy work, which is what I do now. I got involved in a lot of advocacy work after finding out I was HIV positive. And I want to be an HIV tester, to be there for somebody else, as a support, so they know they’re not going in there alone.

There was one time I was at a friend’s house for dinner. Well, I thought they were a friend at the time. I found out later on that they weren’t. I didn’t tell anyone I was HIV positive at first. I was explaining my whole situation. I’m homeless.

‘As a 24-year-old, you don’t really think about your health. Put a Band-Aid on it and we’ll call it a day.’

I just had this deep urge …I felt like I was hiding something. I just wanted to tell somebody, to scream it, to let it out. I had my best friend, but that was just one person. They’re like, “It’s going to be okay.” But then when we sit down to dinner, everybody else had regular silverware and glasses and eating off regular plates. I had a red Solo cup and a paper plate, and plastic utensils. I was wondering, do they not have enough plates? But it made me think, “Wow, is there something wrong with me? Do I have a big sign on my forehead?” I find out they were scared and thought they could contract HIV just by me touching them. Or by drinking behind me or sharing food with me.

I didn’t finish the dinner because I was really upset. I said, “No friend would do what you just did. My mom would never do that. It’s just so insulting.”

I left. I slept on a park bench. And it was cold that night. It was January. There was snow on the ground. People are walking past me giving me weird looks and whatnot. When you’re a homeless person, whether you’re a youth or you’re older, people just don’t treat you very kindly.

I woke up to this very nice older man. He asked me, “Are you okay? Why are you out here—are you homeless?” At the time I didn’t know who he was. I said, “I am. I’m leaving.” I thought he was an officer or something. He said, “Come home with me, if you want to. I would like to feed you, give you some place to sleep. You can stay as many days as you need to until you’re not sick anymore.” He then later told me, “I’m actually HIV positive. I’m just not out.” Months later I ran into him in a support group.

I think fate stepped in a lot of times to help me. I believe in a God. I believe my mom is still with me wherever I’m at. As much turmoil and as many things as I went through, I believe I was looked over by a guardian angel because I couldn’t have made it out of my situation and be here where I’m at. I have a lot to be grateful for and be happy about. And the many people I’ve met through my life now versus my life before being HIV positive—I feel like it’s been so much better.

Now when I do go on Grindr, I’m not ashamed to put down “HIV positive.” It weeds out a lot of effort. It used to bother me that people were very judgmental. But that’s just the way the world is. For me, my status doesn’t mark me as a person. It’s just a health condition that I have to live with. Thank God for the places that give out condoms and lube.

My life is just the same and can be as great as anybody else’s. It took a while to be able to say that.

My mom is the person I really, really yearn to talk to. And it was hard for me to understand at the age of 23, your parent’s gone and it’s you alone in the world. I felt like she would have said, “I still love you. I’ll still be there for you. You’re no different.” When I came out to my mom, it was no different. She never shunned me. She was there for me through a lot of hard things.

At first I didn’t want to have anything to do with HIV. Then I became more mature and understanding what it means to be an HIV-positive person and how that affects me and my community. If I don’t inform people about what’s going on, then I’ll have people who end up like me who don’t know what HIV is.

As a 24 year old, you don’t really think about your health. Put a Band-Aid on it and we’ll call it a day.

My mental health has become a lot better. It’s not just the physical aspects of being an HIV-positive person. It’s a mentality as well too. You still live your life to the fullest, but you don’t live it to where you’re going to hurt your body. It’s not fun when I have to go and get my blood drawn, but I have to. These are just responsibilities I have to take for choices that I made. We all make the choice for the dos and don’ts in our life, and these are not always the best choices for us.

ENID VÁZQUEZ: I ask Dante if he really had a choice. Wasn’t it more accurate to say that society didn’t help him? He didn’t choose to be homeless. He didn’t choose to have HIV. It would be better to say he did the best he could.

I suddenly realized that I’ve been working for POSITIVELY AWARE for 23 of his 24 years. I tell him that as long as he’s been alive, when he was a beautiful baby boy and as he grew up, I’ve watched HIV research and development and services. And I saw how they often didn’t reach the people who needed it. One of the things that really got to me was knowing that HIV-negative people could benefit from the magazine, but they won’t read it. Now with PrEP, we can write to HIV-negative people. Even TPAN now has services for people who don’t have HIV. “But there’s still this disconnect,” I tell him.

DANTE: It’s a very big disconnect. The magazine is where I got a lot of my facts. It wasn’t on the internet where I got my facts, it was from the magazine in the doctor’s office, where I could sit there reading it.

Honestly, when I first saw the magazine, I was like, “Oh no. What if someone sees me reading this?” Then I didn’t care. Because I really need to know what’s inside this magazine. For me the biggest thing was the fact that I didn’t have a support group. Youth for Youth was new. I’m very timid about going out and trying new things. A lot of times, we young people focus on the image that we have and what people will think of us. And a lot of times it’s my anxiety too.

So a lot of times having the magazine gave me a nonjudgmental way of accepting my HIV, but also having a way to connect. It was my only outlet before I found other people in my community that I could talk to now on a daily basis that are HIV-positive. Those faces and stories were important to me. I would drift off sometimes in my imaginary world, wondering what would it be like to meet this person. Or what would it be like to do this type of work. If they can do it, I can do it.

It made me realize that further down the line, now that I know what I want to do with my life, which is to be a health educator, that I also want to be an activist for the rights of the LGBTQ community, and also HIV-positive people and people of color. Because there aren’t a lot of people out there in the people of color community who have this knowledge. And if they have this knowledge, it’s scarcely talked about.