HUMBOLDT PARK — The Chicago neighborhoods with the highest HIV infection rate and the greatest number of people living with HIV are Uptown and Edgewater.
The Association House has helped Humboldt Park and West Side residents since 1899, but starting Tuesday, it's expanding its reach with a mobile HIV testing unit.
"We needed to come up with a creative way of reaching out to people, the communities that are in most need," said Nilmari Donate, divisional director at the center. "If they don't come to us, we need to go to them."
On Tuesday, World AIDS Day, Association House launched its mobile unit with a goal of targeting communities of high-risk individuals.
The goal is to get as many people tested as possible while making the process as comfortable and inviting as possible.
"HIV in Chicago is going down, but it's not going down at the rate that it's going down in other cities," Donate said.
The van will have coffee, snacks and other incentives such as hygiene and personal care products available for those who participate in testing.
The test only takes 60 seconds and occurs in the back of the van at a station set up with two chairs and a table.
Once a person is identified as being HIV positive in the van, they are immediately brought to a satellite facility such as an area hospital that would be convenient for them.
They will then be set up with a case manager and support services.
There will always be two workers on the van at all times when it's out in the neighborhoods, sometimes as late as midnight, and those are people who "know and walk the walk," according to Julie Rodriguez, vice president at Association House.
The workers will be the same people who have been helping those with HIV and AIDS for years at the Humboldt Park center, 1116 N. Kedzie Ave.
The mobile program is being funded by the Center for Disease Control, according to staff at Association House.
The team plans to be out on the street at least five days a week, but will ensure the mobile unit is out on the most vulnerable days of the week, pay days and on weekends, Rodriguez said.
"We want it to be a friendly looking van," she said. "Come in, have something to eat."
Initially the mobile unit will visit areas of highest need including Uptown, Edgewater and West Garfield Park.
Uptown has the highest rate of infection, with a new HIV diagnosis for 13.2 of every 10,000 residents in 2012-2013. Edgewater's HIV diagnosis rate during that period was 10.8 per 10,000 and West Garfield Park was 10.0 per 10,000 residents.
Washington Park had an average HIV infection rate of 9.8 per 10,000 between 2012 and 2013 and Pullman was the fifth highest at 8.8 per 10,000, according to Chicago's 2014 HIV/STI Surveillance Report.
The initiative has the potential for five years of federal funding if the team meets its goals.
The target for the upcoming year is to test 770 people. If that happens, officials expect to find 12 HIV-positive cases during the first year, according to Donate.
Participants in the mobile program will also be linked to other services such as STD screening, housing services and access to Association House's services that include pre-employment training, counseling, substance abuse services and more.
The organization plans to launch an app associated with the mobile unit soon, which will allow participants to track its location and schedule as well as order contraception such as condoms that will be delivered for free.
"The stigma about HIV is that it's an end, that it's untreatable," Rodriguez said. "That's false."
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