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The Washington Blade
A new place to call home: Us Helping Us has moved its headquarters from Capitol Hill to Northwest D.C., into a much larger building
Yusef Najafi, Staff Writer
April 1, 2005
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 Development.

"[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 stick together." 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 forefront.

"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 month.

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 care system.

"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.

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