A private agency whose street-wise program warning San Gabriel Valley and Southeast-area drug users about AIDS once prompted both praise and controversy has been awarded $170,000 by the County Board of Supervisors.
With the grant, the Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse will become the most far-reaching of four county-sponsored programs aimed at reducing the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users and their families.
Intravenous drug users are the fastest-growing category of victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and are the main avenue for its transmission to heterosexuals. About 5% of the county’s 125,000 intravenous drug users have the AIDS virus, health officials estimate.
“We’ll do more by way of intervening in the lives of drug users, helping them find treatment slots and helping them to stop using drugs,” said John Brown, executive director of Los Angeles Centers, which has clinics in West Covina, Santa Fe Springs, Lynwood and Lincoln Heights.
Workers Can Be Doubled
With the county grant awarded Tuesday, the agency can put twice as many social workers and volunteers on the streets, telling drug users to abstain from unsafe sex and that needles should be cleaned and not shared. The agency can also expand its efforts to educate community groups and future health professionals, such as student nurses, to the related dangers of drugs and AIDS, Brown said.
Unlike the other three agencies that each accepted $170,000-grants from the county last summer, Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse will continue to assist in the controversial distribution of condoms and bleach, he said.
Los Angeles Centers distributed bleach, which can be used to sterilize needles, and condoms, which have been shown to reduce the spread of AIDS, for the first six months of the year while operating as Rio Hondo Community Action Network in Santa Fe Springs. The Rio Hondo network recently merged with the Open Door Clinics and changed its name.
County Issues Ban
County supervisors, after an emotional hearing six weeks ago, refused to let county social workers hand out condoms or bleach kits. That ban also covers the use of county funds by private agencies. A majority of the board said that giving away condoms and bleach was tantamount to encouraging sexual promiscuity and drug abuse.
Such distribution, pioneered in a dozen other cities, had been endorsed by the county Department of Health Services and the AIDS Commission.
Brown said Tuesday that he still considers handouts of bleach and condoms an essential part of an effective program and will continue to arrange them.
State Grant Differs
However, condoms and bleach kits will be handed out according to carefully defined guidelines drawn to make distribution acceptable under county and state contracts that provide $300,000 to Los Angeles Centers, Brown said.
Unlike the county’s contract, the $130,000 state grant does not prohibit condom and bleach distribution as long as the materials are not purchased with state money, he said. None of the agency’s eight full-time AIDS workers will distribute the materials, nor will grant money be used to buy them, he said.
“We’re going to be encouraging volunteer and independent efforts to disseminate bleach and condoms,” Brown said.
David Beck, financial officer for the county Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, which oversees drug-related AIDS grants, said Los Angeles Centers’ structure may allow it to arrange distribution of condoms and bleach.
County health officials said programs such as Los Angeles Centers’ are crucial since studies show that once intravenous drug users are aware of the AIDS threat many stop sharing needles. A 1987 study of 238 drug users in the Los Angeles area found that 40% had stopped even before entering treatment programs.
In San Francisco, where outreach workers took to the streets two years ago, nearly 70% of the drug users polled said they clean their needles with bleach.