The mission of Heartland Alliance for the last 125 years has been to advance human rights and respond "to the human needs of endangered populationsparticularly the poor, the isolated, and the displacedthrough the provision of comprehensive and respectful services and the promotion of permanent solutions leading to a more just global society."
Heartland was also one of Chicago's first responders during the beginning of the AIDS Crisis. Rev. Sid Mohn, president of Heartland, began a program for those diagnosed and living with AIDS that seemed revolutionary at the time.
"We saw AIDS as not just a public health issue but also one of social justice," said Mohn. "We wanted to treat this new 'gay disease' with both non-discrimination and a recognition that we needed organized systems of care not normally available to those with HIV before."
Heartland partnered with Cook County Hospital to provide one of the nation's first specialty clinics for those with AIDS/HIV. Heartland also became a fierce advocate of equal protection for those who were being treated. "We had to be sure that those people, the most vulnerable, who are normally 'cut out' of the table were not cut out at that table," said Karen Batia, the executive director of Heartland Health Outreach.
Since Heartland intervened, the face of AIDS has changed as have the funds made available to sustain their innovative programs. "We offered a holistic approach to those living with HIV. We offered not only the basic health needs but acupuncture, recreational outings and a community nurse," said John Dinauer, a case manager with the behavioral health unit for Heartland. "But things change. Funding changes. HIV changes. The money for our approach went away though we did try as long as we could to keep it going, We just ended our art therapy sessions but we think within time, that program will return."
Currently, Heartland operates more than 140 scattered-site housing units for those with HIV and AIDS. "We understand that providing housing, real, viable housing for those most marginalized who are living with AIDS is an important part of their actual treatment," said Dinauer. "My job as a case manager is comprehensive. Housing is a part but so is making sure our participants have healthcare and some sort of income. We also operate the Rafael Center to make sure our participants have some place to come to during the day."
HIV prevention has also been a recent objective for Heartland with the establishment of "Promise." "This is community-based intervention. We are reaching out to the unidentified community. These are predominantly African-American men who have sex with men. First, we identify advocates in the community then take those advocates' stories and disseminate them through those men who may be at risk. This is more than just distributing condoms. This is peer-to-peer intervention with counseling on safer-sex and testing," said Dinauer.
Batia, with Heartland Health Outreach, stressed the importance of medical care that went beyond the basics. "We recently merged with Vital Bridges so that folks would have access to quality, fresh foods. This is not a food bank with canned and non-perishables but actual grocery centers where people can come and 'shop'. We offer nutritional counselors to make sure that the nutritional needs of folks are met," said Batia.
HIV early intervention, funded by the City of Chicago, is another way that Heartland is seeking to ease and end HIV and AIDS in Chicagoland. "This program is for folks that we suspect are probably HIV positive and do not know it yet. We are looking at youth, single adults, men and women. We target these groups systematically based on the data we have available to us," said Batia. Heartland's early intervention program is multi-disciplinary, offering education, testing, harm reduction strategies and anything else that will promote the containment of HIV and AIDS.
Dinauer helps manage more than 140 scattered-site housing for those with HIV and Batia makes certain that the housing is there for those who need it. "We believe that access to both housing and healthcare are basic human rights," said Batia. "One of our greatest goals today is finding that housing, although with the new healthcare law taking effect in 2014, that may become somewhat less challenging for us."
The Affordable Healthcare Act ( AHA ) has become Heartland's and other centers like theirs greatest "what-ifs". "Heartland does have a strategic direction when AHA is in force in 2014," said Batia. "It is important to remember that just because the law is there that suddenly all of the problems we had will be solved. It is up to us to help enforce that law and make certain that we shape the service systems for the benefit of the most vulnerable. We need to make sure that our folks, and those on Medicaid will continued to be enrolled into coordinated care," said Batia.
"At the core of what Heartland does is provide medical care for those who need it most. But this is not enough. We must also be able to provide housing, connectivity, emergency care beyond the emergency room and security. Heartland works with the most vulnerable populations and oftentimes, these may seem small but these folks have no access to them," said Batia.
Heartland's work does not end at the borders of Cook County. Mohn just returned from a trip to West Africa. He said, "The work that we started in the 1980s and '90s we are trying to start here. This is more than medical services. We are also responding to the advancement of equitable healthcare for those living with HIV and AIDS and advocate for their full participation in society."
For more information on Heartland Alliance and the work that they do here in Chicago and abroad, visit the organization's Website at www.heartlandalliance.org .