The Aliveness Project’s early days in 1985 consisted of a group of about 20 HIV-positive people meeting in living rooms and church basements to share potluck meals. When they opened an office at the old DFL headquarters at 38th & Chicago in 1988, they didn’t hang a sign on the door. People learned about the group through word of mouth.
“There was a lot of ignorance, and a lot of prejudice,” said Tim Marburger, director of fundraising and special events. “A lot of people were afraid that if you touched someone with HIV you would get it.”
Today, meals are served nearly every day at The Aliveness Project that draw 150-175 people. Members can shop a food shelf with fresh produce. There is free lobby Internet access, nutrition counseling, massage therapy and case management. More than 1,700 people are using services, which amounts to one in four Minnesotans who live with HIV/AIDS.
“A lot of people don’t even think of AIDS anymore,” Marburger said. “They thought that was cured. … We see 15 new cases a month.”
The Aliveness Project discovers some of those cases by issuing 20-minute HIV tests at shelters and under bridges.
There was a time when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence, but it isn’t that way anymore, said Tom Bichanga, who administers the tests as director of outreach and prevention. Bringing people in to medical care is vital, Marburger said, because it greatly diminishes the chance of passing the virus to others.
“When I first became positive, there was no treatment,” said Timothy Murphy, who tested positive in 1986.
“The goal was not to get sick. Because the minute you got sick, in two years you’d be dead,” said Scott Schlaffman, who was diagnosed in 1987 and started volunteering at Aliveness in 1992.
Early drugs emaciated patients, said Marburger.* People were taking 10-30 pills per day, even waking in the middle of the night to take them. A typical daily dosage today is 300 milligrams, Schlaffman said. But in the medication’s early days, a prescription could reach 2,400 milligrams in a single day, he said.
Today there are many more drugs to choose from, although the side effects can be difficult to manage, ranging from heart issues to diarrhea, nausea, and damaged nerves.
Murphy said he loved working as a server, but he became trapped in the bathroom during shifts with side effects from medication.
“It’s uncomfortable to explain to a boss,” he said.
“So many of our folks deal with poverty and stigma,” Marburger said.
Nearly 70 percent of those served by Aliveness live at or below the federal poverty level, which is $11,770 for individuals.
Schlaffman said people living with HIV/AIDS for the past 20 or 30 years have seen major changes. But he still hears stories about people who won’t support a family member with HIV, and he still hears questions about whether you can contract HIV from mosquito bites.
“AIDS is not the only thing that defines me as who I am. It’s something I have to live with,” he said.
During The Aliveness Project’s upcoming holiday gift basket program, about 1,500 people across the state are “adopted” by donors who receive a wish list and a suggestion to spend $35 per person. Donors can also opt to sew stockings or bake cookies. Basket donations are due Dec. 11.
“Hundreds of volunteers come in to wrap and decorate the boxes,” Marburger said.
On Christmas Eve, gifts are delivered across the state.
An upcoming food drive for The Aliveness Project is Nov. 21 and 22 at the Wedge Co-op.
*This story has been updated to omit a reference to a drug cocktail first prescribed in 1996.