February 6, 2018

The art of living with HIV at Peter Claver Community

February 8, 2018
Christina Gray

Michael Pullis leaned on a cane, his jacket heavily splattered with raindrops. But the deluge outside did not appear to dampen his mood or that of the guests who came to Spark Arts Gallery in San Francisco Jan. 24 to see an exhibit of artwork produced by people living successfully with human immunodeficiency virus.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said Pullis, 52, clearly enjoying his celebrity-for-a-night status. “I’ve only seen this kind of thing on TV.”

Pullis, diagnosed with HIV in 1982, is a 20-year resident of Peter Claver Community, a residential care facility in the city’s Fillmore District for chronically homeless individuals living with disabling HIV or AIDS run by Catholic Charities. He was one of eight residents whose paintings, collages, sculptures and drawings were featured in the “Patchwork” exhibit and art sale which ran through January.

“As Thomas Merton once said, art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” said Claver activities director Stanley Stone at the gallery reception hosted by Catholic Charities for visitors, neighbors and donors. “We have created a container for the residents to do just that.”

Few of the residents had much in the way of artistic experience before they began his weekly art session, he said. But while talent isn’t the entire point of the program which he started just last year, Stone has watched untapped creativity and confidence bloom.

“I’ve watched as they bring all of their fears and traumas into the art room and they leave feeling less burdened and more positive,” he said. “I’ve witnessed how these resident artists, all living with HIV or AIDS, have grown both artistically and personally.”

As residents work individually and together on their projects, the space becomes “a safe place for conversation,” said Stone, where in a natural and unforced way they can express their feelings with each other about what they are going through. “There is all this support.”

Chief executive officer Jilma Meneses called Catholic Charities one of the “first responders” to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “When nobody else wanted to take these brothers and sisters, Catholic Charities did it. We welcomed them and embraced them.”

The San Francisco Department of Public Health approached Catholic Charities at the height of the worldwide AIDS epidemic during the 1980s, seeking help in providing housing and support for persons living with HIV or full-blown AIDS who were homeless or marginally housed.

Peter Claver Community opened in a dilapidated residence hotel in 1985 with three staff and five residents as the first program of its kind in the United States. In 1988, Catholic Charities purchased its current home, a 1920s Italian Renaissance building on Golden Gate Avenue which houses 32 residents.

The community provides permanent housing and nursing support services to formerly homeless San Francisco clients who are very low income, who have disabling HIV or AIDS and almost always, co-occurring major psychiatric and substance abuse disorders.

To minimize the utilization of hospital emergency rooms, crisis services and other publicly funded health systems, the staff, which includes program director Tonja Sagun, is able to address most care support on-site and improve personal and community outcomes.

“The goal is to assist each resident in maintaining his or her optimal level of independence and quality of life living with a debilitating illness,” Sagun said. “Today patients with HIV can live full long lives with proper medication and support services and Catholic Charities is a major component in the continuum of that care,” she said.

According to a 2017 year-end impact report by Catholic Charities, 100 percent of Claver clients have maintained their housing stability, 86 percent have maintained or improved their physical health and 87 percent of clients have mental health that is considered “stable” or “thriving.”

Peter Claver Community is also one of five residential programs now run by Catholic Charities in San Francisco for people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses, some for women and families only. They include Leland House, Derek Silva Community, Rita de Cascia Community and Hazel Betsey Community.

Sixty-nine-year-old Diane Hudson was born in England but came to San Francisco in 1970 “to be a flower child.” She was diagnosed HIV-positive in the 1990s, the result, she said, of drug use. Like many Peter Claver residents, she shares her life with a pet, hers a bunny named Smiley.

“I went to art school at 16 but I still feel I have more to do,” she said.

Another resident, who identified himself as Tom and who was not present at the exhibit, offered a personal statement in much the same spirit. Three of his pieces were purchased that night.

“I hope to find what my hidden potential is,” he wrote. “The work I am showing now reflects a time when I am being good to myself instead of doing something negative. Art makes me feel good.”

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