Arkansas RAPPS continues providing HIV services during COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 20 years ago, a group of young, gay Black men discussed creating a small community for themselves while gathered in the living room of Cornelius Mabin Jr. They talked about outreach and finding their way in the world.
“We were trying to address systems that we thought didn’t work for us and we had no idea at that time, all those years ago, that here we are talking about that even now.”
Mabin is the founder and CEO of Arkansas RAPPS (Reaching Affirming Positive Progressive Systems). The organization incorporated in 2014, but its work started years earlier during that living room conversation. With the arrival of another World AIDS Day, Mabin reflects on the men from that group who are no longer here.
“They all didn’t make it,” he says.
After a long pause, Mabin continues.
“But it’s okay. We continue to believe and particularly what we’ve done here is to continue to fight.”
Arkansas RAPPS is a Little Rock-based nonprofit that offers HIV and Hepatitis C testing, health care navigation, and health education information services. In November, the organization celebrated the one-year anniversary of its Living Room Wellness Resource Center. It is believed to be the first space owned and operated by people of color living with HIV in the state, Mabin says.
Through his work with various organizations, Mabin kept encountering a desire to have a space where people could feel safe and welcome. He decided to meet that need with the creation of the center.
“The common thing was space, where is our space,” he says. “Where do we go where we can have people who look like us, where people who can understand us, who can understand when systems don’t work for us and not judge us.”
In addition to screenings by appointment, the Living Room Resource Wellness Center provides free condoms; navigation to the Ready, Set, PrEP program; peer advocacy skills training; and nonclinical counseling.
“I’ve had HIV for more than 25 years and so it’s amazing to me that I’m still counseling young men who are 18, 19, 20 who are newly diagnosed with HIV,” Mabin says. “It’s still alarming to me, but it’s good that they do have an individual like me who has lived a long time, and I let them know that they can live a long life as well.”
Black gay, bisexual and other men who reported male-to-male sexual contact are more affected by HIV than any other group in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2018, this group accounted for 26 percent of the nearly 38,000 new HIV diagnoses and 37 percent of new diagnoses among all gay and bisexual men.
A report released in 2018 by the Arkansas Department of Health found Black Arkansans accounted for nearly 54 percent of new HIV cases and about 51 percent of new AIDS cases. African Americans make up less than 16 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Arkansas is one of 7 states with a disproportionate occurrence of HIV in rural areas being targeted in a national initiative to reduce new HIV infections by 75 percent by 2025 and by 90 percent by 2030. Arkansas RAPPS founder Cornelius Mabin says there is a lack of access to screening, testing and counseling in rural areas.
Arkansas RAPPS has been able to reach different parts of the state through a new initiative to distribute free, at-home HIV test kits. After filling out a survey on the nonprofit’s website, the kit can be mailed to you or a contactless pickup at the resource center can be scheduled.
“I wanted to go one step further because we were trying to get more interaction with individuals using the test so now I’ve upped the ante and I will actually pay you to take the test,” Mabin says.
To qualify for the $15, you must fill out the survey, complete the test and report your results. The free tests are part of a partnership with Walgreens and Greater Than AIDS that Arkansas RAPPS has participated in for the last few years.
Since 2011, the Kaiser Family Foundation, through its Greater Than AIDS initiative, and Walgreens have partnered with health departments and HIV service organizations to provide free HIV testing and information in Walgreens stores in support of National HIV Testing Day.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was replaced by a new free HIV self-testing program. Organizations around the country have received 10,000 donated kits. Since launching in October, Mabin says Arkansas RAPPS has distributed 15 kits around the state.
From 3 to 7 p.m. Dec. 1, one of Mabin’s colleagues will be offering testing at the Walgreens located at 3901 W. Markham St. in Little Rock. Meanwhile, Mabin has a full schedule of engagements on World’s AIDS Day including an event with people who provide housing, an issue that’s important to him.
“There’s lots of people living with HIV, but housing is so important because if you’re not housed, there’s a possibility you will fall out of care because that’s not a priority for you,” he says.
Homelessness is becoming a bigger issue for people living with HIV, Mabin says.
“I have noticed more homeless individuals with HIV and so we’re trying to assess that situation because sometimes the shelters do not want people with HIV in the shelter,” he says.
HIV-positive individuals can take medication to manage their condition and are not a threat to anyone in homeless facilities, Mabin says.
While individuals living with HIV may face discrimination in situations like this one, they do have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, if someone is denied an occupational license or admission to a school on the basis of a rumor or assumption that they have HIV or AIDS, even if they do not, they would be protected under the ADA.
Education is important and Mabin says there is still work to be done to address stigmas surrounding HIV-positive individuals.
“There’s a lot of education that needs to continue and we hope to continue to do that here through all of the things that we’ll be doing over 2021,” he says.
More information about obtaining a free HIV test kit and access to other services is available at www.arkansasrapps.com.