Strut, a program of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, is a revolutionary sexual health resource center for men, including those living with HIV. It opened its doors in 2016, with the mission of promoting the health and wellness of gay, bi, and trans men; strengthening community, and reducing the impact of HIV on San Francisco.
Strut brings together multiple programs — case management, substance use counseling, mental health counseling, and HIV and sexually transmitted infections screenings — into one convenient location. Integrating those services allows the SFAF to maximize funds and serve to up to 50 percent more people than it used to. Oh yeah, and all services are one hundred percent free.
One of the most innovative resources available to poz men at Strut is Positive Force, a holistic wellness program focusing as much on mental and emotional well-being as on physical health. The program includes one-on-one wellness sessions, social events and excursions, health workshops with HIV experts, and two-day weekend retreats called PLUS (Positive Living for Us Seminars). Those weekends are, for some clients, life-altering.
“It’s just amazing to see the emotional change in people from Saturday morning to Sunday evening when they leave” says Positive Force program manager T.J. Lee-Miyaki. “It might be the first time they’re in the room with other people who are HIV-positive. They realize that they’re not alone, that other people are going through similar feelings or emotions, and have similar thoughts to them, or are struggling with things like how to tell their parents. It’s powerful to see these people come in and, by the end of the weekend, they’re like, ‘You know what? I can actually get my head wrapped around this. I can see there’s a future.’”
Lee-Miyaki, who has been living with HIV for 17 years, says sharing his story helps clients cope with the overwhelming anxiety they experience when first diagnosed.
“That usually helps break down a little bit of a wall and a fear, because then they think, Oh, well this person has done this,” he says. Little things appear to make big differences in some of these men’s lives, as well. Lee-Miyaki started giving iTunes gift cards to clients and encouraging them to create a “happy, shiny playlist” that can lift them up when they are having bad days. It’s been a very popular addition to the program.
One of Positive Force’s main goals is to offer support and coping mechanisms for men who have just learned their HIV status, Lee-Miyaki says. He recalls one 19-year-old who came into Strut right after diagnosis, “He thought his life was over, you know, that he’d never find anybody to love him.”
Initially, the teenager fell into a depression, which led to dropping grades at college, and other personal issues. Lee-Miyaki has worked with the young man for over two and a half years, now, mostly in the program’s one-on-one sessions.
“And now he’s an A-student, he’s got a boyfriend, he sees a future for himself,” Lee-Miyaki says. One life saved, many more to go.