Washington Blade - April 1, 2005
For the first time in more than a decade, Ron Simmons, president
of Us Helping Us, People Into Living Inc., said he's really
feeling part of a gay community. Home for the 20-year-old AIDS
service organization that specializes in HIV prevention primarily
among black gay and bisexual men in D.C., has been on Capitol
Hill for almost a decade.
Simmons' newly found sense of inclusion is due to the
organization's recent move from 811 L St., SE, to 3636 Georgia
Ave., NW, across from the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro stop, not
too far from Howard University.
"I like the neighborhood," Simmons, 55, said. "When we were down
in Eastern Market, between the Marine Barracks and the Navy Yard,
we didn't feel that we were a part of the gay community. Here, I
feel that we are."
The organization's former offices were around the corner from the
Bachelor's Mill, a longtime gay club, and within walking distance
of the Phase II, a longtime lesbian bar on 8th Street, SE.
The new two-story building has an elevator, a basement, 20
offices, two conference rooms and a meeting room that seats 60
people. There also are two waiting rooms and a lobby.
"We leased six buildings over in the Southeast area, and we
outgrew the individual houses we had," said Ernest Walker,
manager of outreach services at Us Helping Us. "So we realized
that we needed to have all of our services [in] one facility."
Us Helping Us offers HIV counseling and testing for black men and
women, regardless of sexual orientation. In 2004, the
organization provided counseling services and HIV testing for
about 549 people in metropolitan Washington, Simmons said, of
which about 389 were male and 160 were female.
The organization also distributed about 30,000 condoms last year
through various venues, Simmons said, including 21 barbershops
and 23 beauty salons.
Us Helping Us purchased its new building on Georgia Avenue in
September 2001 for about $438,000. (An open house is tentatively
scheduled to take place there in late May, during Black Pride
Weekend, which traditionally is held May 27-29.)
D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), one of two gay
councilmembers in D.C., spearheaded the effort to secure a
$500,000 grant so Us Helping Us could renovate the new building.
The grant came from the D.C. Department of Housing & Community
"[The new building] is [in] a block that is undergoing positive
change," Graham said, "and I think having this very positive
organization present is going to make a difference. [AIDS] is
obviously a huge issue, and we are very proud to have to have the
building in Ward 1."
Us Helping Us has an annual budget of $2.3 million. Simmons said
the total cost of the building's renovation was about $600,000.
The organization received additional funding from the federal
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Substance Abuse
& Mental Health Services Administration.
"It's wonderful because we are all together for the first time,"
said Gibby Thomas, a 48-year-old transgendered employee at Us
Helping Us who facilitates support groups there.
"We need to be together to get somewhere," she said, "whether
we're transgender, bisexual, gay, lesbian or whatever, we need to
Us Helping Us has 24 full-time employees and about 25 volunteers.
Simmons said in addition to the perks of having more space in one
location, and having access to a Metro stop across the street,
he's pleased that the building's cost is stabilized for the next
15 to 20 years.
In January 2005, in addition to cutting funding for the
Whitman-Walker Clinic, in Northwest D.C., the D.C. government
eliminated a $100,000 grant Us Helping Us had been allocated.
This led to the closure of the AIDS service organization's
Transgender Drop-In Center, and four full-time and nine part-time
employees had to be laid off.
Lydia Watts, senior deputy director of the D.C. Department of
Health who oversees the HIV/AIDS Administration, said the budget
cuts were a result of a series of policy changes at the CDC.
"That was one my biggest disappointments," Simmons said,
"because, there are a few cities addressing the needs of
transgender people living with HIV, and D.C. was in the
"Now there is nothing," Simmons said, referring to ongoing
services throughout the week for transgendered residents.
The Transgender Drop-In Center at Us Helping Us operated
differently than a support group by providing a safe haven for
transgender people, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
"It makes me feel left out," Thomas said of the center's closure.
"We can do so much for our community, but how much are we really
doing if people are left out?"
Although funding cuts led to an end to the Transgender Drop-In
Center, Us Helping Us still offers support groups for
transgendered people every second and fourth Friday of each
Simmons said the organization's new headquarters also would help
him and others there focus more attention on addressing
homophobia among African Americans.
"We are the only organization that is pushing the envelope, in
terms of having community discussions about homophobia and HIV
stigma in the black community," Simmons said.
He said Us Helping Us was one of the first organizations in the
country to have a community forum about men on the down low. That
discussion took place in March 2002.
"You're not going to be able to deal with the problem of HIV in
the black community if you don't deal with the issue of
homophobia," he said. "They're so closely linked.
"Historically, when AIDS [was identified] it was because of
homophobia that the black community didn't become concerned or
involved," Simmons said.
This silence has had a trickle-down effect, he said, and today is
having an impact on gay youths of color, among others. And many
are struggling for acceptance at home.
"There are so many gay youths who are being thrown out of the
house, have no social support in the school, or are engaging in
risky behavior because they don't have that social support,"
Simmons said. "And, again, that's the homophobia."
Future goals for Us Helping Us include HIV education on public
television and also introducing medical services, Simmons said.
Plans also are underway to provide psychotherapy for black gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youths who are in the foster
"I envision that this building will become a focal point for all
kinds of things going on in the community," Simmons said.
Lou Chibbaro Jr. contributed to this report.