Attacking HIV In The Urban Core

Sep 9, 2015

  Jesse Dixon is walking the streets of Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood, armed with backpacks stuffed with Ziploc bags of condoms.

He and his five colleagues with the Central Florida non-profit agency Hope and Help are talking safe sex with anyone who will listen. Dixon walks up to a woman, sitting near Orlando’s Coalition for the Homeless shelter, and offers her a pack.

The woman says she already got some condoms from the health department. And she’s trying to sell them.

“Well let me give you some more, then, you might want to sell them to somebody that can use them,” said Dixon, a health educator. “Help save somebody’s life, whether you make a dollar or not.”

The day is hot, and threatening a Florida downpour.  A man sitting in an SUV cracks a joke to the HIV educators about the number of condoms he’s handed.

“Not that much Viagra in the world, man,” he cackled.

These activists say there’s a reason why they’re handing out condoms in this historically poor, predominantly African American neighborhood in Orlando’s urban core. HIV and AIDS is a problem in Parramore. More than three people out of every 100 are infected.

Parramore also is where an empty lot soon will be transformed into the new Orlando City soccer stadium.  Hope and Help peer mentor Steve Addona wonders aloud what that change will bring, when the stadium turns Parramore into an extension of downtown?

He worries because of how geography already plays a role in HIV’s prevalence in Parramore. Interstate 4 stands as a barrier, strangling and isolating the neighborhood off from the rest of Orlando.

Residents in this situation often stay put, so once HIV is introduce into the area, the virus spreads from partner to partner in what experts call a ‘closed’ system.

“Where are these people gonna go?” Addona asked. “Are they gonna be pushed closer to the Pine Hills area? They’re certainly not gonna disappear.”

Dixon, one of the team handing out condoms, leads the group deeper into the Parramore neighborhood. Boarded up empty homes dot the area. Residents hang out in clusters outside them.

Hope and Help Health Educator Seantele Jarrett spots a middle-aged woman standing in her front yard and hands her a pack of condoms. The woman says her brother just got out of jail, where he took an HIV test. He’s not positive, she tells them.

“Tell him he wants to stay that way,” Jarrett said.

A woman Jarrett knows walks up and gives her a big hug. Another man approaches the pair and asks for condoms.

“I just thought about it, I’m going where a gang of freaks at,” the man said.

“Oh lord, I better give you three or four packs,” Jarrett says. “Give em to the freaks, tell ’em use ’em. And tell them make sure they wear they right size. Don’t put on a magnum if they don’t need it.”

Some residents turn down the condoms. Most residents thanked the group, and found some humor in the situation. One mother yelled at her son, telling him he doesn’t need a baby.

“Our prevention team loves to work in Parramore because they are so appreciative of our help,” said Lisa Barr, executive director of Hope and Help.

Problems such as poverty, crime and low education levels add up against Parramore residents, she said. Only about half of adults have a high school diploma or GED.

“But there are factors stacked up against them that make them more susceptible to HIV and other infections,” she said. “So the rates in that area are quite high.”

And then there’s Orlando’s infamous Orange Blossom Trail and its high homeless population, sex workers and drug addicts. All are big risk factors for HIV and AIDS.

Barr said she wants to put her Hope and Help program smack dab into Parramore to address the needs. They even picked out a site.

“But there’s a city ordinance that prohibits social service organizations from being in that area,” she said.

The ordinance she mentions is Orlando’s “Parramore Heritage Overlay District.”  It prohibits new social service organizations from coming into the neighborhood.

“We believe it’s because they don’t want the homeless to gather,” Barr said. “But that’s not the service we provide.”

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the ordinance pre-dates his administration.

“Before I took office, there was some recognition that virtually all of the social services were being located in one neighborhood, which is Parramore,” Dyer said. “So there was a ban, not on social services, but the expansion of social services.”

So Dixon and his crew continue to share their message – and the condoms – out on the sidewalks of Parramore. In total, nearly 3,000 condoms were handed out in one afternoon.

Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFE in Orlando. WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.