Santa Cruzans gather for a candlelit vigil on World AIDS Day to remember the victims of America’s forgotten pandemic
Dozens of candles flickered in the cold wind, held solemnly by those assembled at the end of Pacific Avenue on Tuesday, Dec. 1, to pay their respects to loved ones taken away by or suffering from AIDS. Under the near full moon, words of togetherness and respect were voiced. There was music and singing, praying and laughter, sadness and hope. But this year there was another emotion bandied just as passionately—one of anger at a country’s, and a community’s, neglect.
After a rendition of “Lean On Me,” Merle Smith, executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), stepped forward to address the circle: “My own brother passed from AIDS in 2006, [and] two weeks ago I had a niece who was diagnosed positive. The disease is still active, it is still touching our friends and our families,” she said.
Much of the anger in the local community stems from large cuts to SCAP’s public and private funding. This September their Drop-In center, which spearheaded many AIDS treatment and prevention methods that have become models for other clinics across the country, was forced to close. “All the state funding was completely taken away,” Smith tells Good Times. “We have had the Drop-In center for 19 years and this year we had to take it away.”
SCAP has lost nearly half of its overall funding, necessitating the layoffs of nearly half its staff and the closure of the Drop-In center. The loss of so many employees means they will not be able to do much of the outreach work they’ve become known for, like seeking out the sick in our levees and shanties.
Though AIDS is an emotional topic, for her especially, Smith tries to make her points with fiscal sensibility. “What about the $650,000 it takes to keep a person with HIV and AIDS alive? You could negate that by spending a lot less now [in prevention],” she says. Much of the work SCAP does in Santa Cruz is with prevention education.
Cuts like those suffered by SCAP have become common across our country during these tough economic times. Smith says she thinks the cuts have been especially hard on AIDS facilities as public interest has waned as people have come to see the disease as treatable and so not as serious as it once was.
“People think that now that they don’t see people dropping dead on the streets the problem isn’t there,” says Smith. “There’s still a desperate need for education.”
It’s been 30 years since the first recorded case of AIDS, yet a recent survey of 64 countries by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) showed that less than 40 percent of youth have basic information regarding HIV. There are an estimated 33 million people living with AIDS worldwide, and more than 25 million have died of the disease since 1981. Last year alone there were 3 million new cases recorded, and more than 2 million deaths.
While AIDS rates in America have seemed to level out in recent years (the number of cases in Santa Cruz County staying between 700-1,000) this is due largely to the quality of our treatment centers and does not imply that there are no new cases. An average of 15 new cases have been recorded every year for the last six years In Santa Cruz County, according to data in the 2009 Community Assessment Project report. Smith worries that a lack of funding to centers could result in a backward slide toward the way things were before the center’s conception. “People in those days were dying much more rapidly than today,” she says. “It was almost like being in a third world country.”
Despite funding cuts, there are things being done to help. Biz AIDS, developed by New Leaf Community Markets in cooperation with SCAP, is a program that asks local businesses to donate a percentage of their sales or a fixed amount to SCAP for the ten days following Thanksgiving. SCAP also organizes an AIDS walk every spring from the Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Park and back. These programs may not be enough to offset the massive funding cuts they’ve sustained.
“We always need volunteers,” says Smith. “If there are people who can write grants for us, can sit with a client, can take care of a homeless person—we have space.”
AIDS was the definitive disease of an era, and as that era passes, SCAP reminds us that it is important to remember the difference between a disease being treatable and a disease being cured.