Over the years, Si a la Vida has cultivated an incredible expertise in addressing HIV and creative wellness programs for the LGBTQ Latinx community. Their successes have encompassed prevention, education, and outreach efforts. Since these are also key areas of expertise required during a pandemic, it wasn’t surprising that the San Francisco Dept. of Public Health asked them to undertake outreach to the Latino community.
As has often been the case, outreach was happening in the Mission but wasn’t coordinated or reaching those most in need. At the same time, everyone saw day laborers congregating as they sought work, and noticed that they weren’t practicing social distancing. It was clear that outreach and education weren’t reaching them.
HIV education and outreach to the LGBTQ Latinx community isn’t as different from outreach to day laborers around COVID-19 as one might expect. As Si a la Vida Program Director Rafael “Rafa” Velazquez stated: “Trust, nonjudgmental and harm reduction principles apply to both populations. It’s about understanding the context in which they live.”
It’s true; their contexts are different. Rafa noted that when his team conducted HIV prevention outreach in a bar or club, people recognized them as outreach workers and understood their relationship. Ironically, someday laborers drink as a way of coping with their circumstances. They weren’t sure whether to trust this group of people reaching out to them.
Rafa attributes this to a long history of neglect around issues impacting day laborers. “There is considerable discussion around homelessness in San Francisco, but day laborers have been missing from these conversations,” adds Rafa. “While they are not always homeless, day laborers are certainly marginally housed. Under this pandemic, they have lost work, they’ve probably lost housing, and don’t know how to navigate services for the homeless.”
Si a la Vida’s success with day laborers has gone deeper than COVID-19 outreach. “It is about recognizing them as members of our community. Most day laborers are not gay-identified. But it’s like speaking with an uncle or a cousin, not someone unfamiliar to us. We see them as people.”
For weeks, Rafa and his team set out each day with information, occasional hot lunches provided by Casa Corazóón, and masks from Indigena Health and Wellness. “Just like with anyone else, day laborers want to know how to be part of the solution to COVID-19, but no one has taken the time to show them how they fit into it,” Rafa shares. “We show them how to practice social distancing, and share how they are helping to flatten the curve to control the virus sooner. Not only is this true, but it also becomes a reference point to integrate day laborers into the rest of the community. They are an equal part of the solution.”