Positively Living Continues Helping the City (and you can help them)

Positively Living, 1925 Ailor Avenue, Knoxville, April 2024
Positively Living, 1925 Ailor Avenue, Knoxville, April 2024

Positively Living, founded in 1996 to serve those living with HIV, continues to serve many of our friends and neighbors in Knoxville and, in 2018 launched Choice Health Network in order to serve even more people. Located at 1925 Ailor Avenue, just across I-40 from downtown, the organization expanded its services and service areas, now providing help from Chattanooga to Memphis. They will soon launch a fund-raising effort critical to the range of services they now provide.

I recently toured the facility on Ailor and spoke with COO Kim Lauth about the organization and how it has evolved. The non-descript entry-way yields to a typical waiting room with a few comfortable chairs. An onsite pharmacy also sits in the lobby, allowing newly diagnosed patients to leave their initial appointment with drugs needed for treatment.

The rear hall contains offices for health providers, the primary lab and, at the end of the hallway, the harm-reduction suite, where patients can exchange needles and enter from an outside entrance. Upstairs a large airy sitting room centers the floor with administrative offices, offices for case managers and social workers, and a board room and large meeting room utilizing the remainder.

Positively Living, 1925 Ailor Avenue, Knoxville, April 2024
Positively Living, 1925 Ailor Avenue, Knoxville, April 2024

Kim said the group has tried to establish a place that can meet the range of needs faced by many in the HIV positive population. The pharmacy, for example, made an important addition because they can start treatment immediately, giving them hope, immediately. The staff includes a physician and two nurse practitioners who work in the facility four days a week.

They are proud of the building they purchased in 2019, “which had stood empty for a long time,” and renovated it during COVID, “which was just as fun as it sounds. We raised about $700,000 in the community, including some generous gifts from the City of Knoxville to help with the purchase and renovation.” Part of the renovations included an elevator which was required by code.

The organization started as a day space for people with HIV. “Of course, at that time HIV was a very different scenario than it is now . . . It evolved into a supportive housing unit on Fifth Avenue . . . In 2018 we started Choice Health Services.” They had become involved in prevention, but that shift allowed them to begin providing medical services. “During COVID we expanded and have offices in Chattanooga, Cookeville, and Memphis . . . Cookeville is social services only.”

The encouraging news on their front is that “treatment outcomes have gotten so much better.” Once a near death sentence, the disease can be managed very successfully, though Ms. Lauth said the “stigma still remains.” The goal for treatment has now become “viral suppression,” which means they have “undetectable levels of the virus in their body.” Once reached through current medications, the person should be able to live a normal, healthy life and they are not contagious if they maintain that status. “It’s the best possible public health outcome, as well as the best personal outcome.”

She said it takes a range of resources to help patients attain that level of health. For that reason, they’ve expanded their services through the years. This includes “food support, housing support, mental health care . . . are for most of our clients what makes reaching a suppressed viral load possible.” They try to keep clients off the streets, keep them fed, and keep their medications and even belongings safe (they have lockers on site). She said that 90% or more of their clients have reached viral suppression.

Positively Living, 1925 Ailor Avenue, Knoxville, April 2024

She estimates that twenty-five percent of their clients are un-housed. Many live near or below the poverty line. They no longer have supportive housing directly, but “we do have supportive housing programs that help pay people’s rent or utilities when people get behind or lose a job. We have food programs where we can get food cards to help people maintain their nutrition, gas cards to help people have gasoline, or bus cards to help people get to appointments.” These services are offered to clients who are HIV positive, hepatitis C positive, or are engaged in prevention programs.

Great strides have been made in treatment and prevention, including monthly or daily medication to prevent HIV infection. She said it is extremely effective if used properly. A negative test gives them an opportunity to provide protective services. “There is no cure for HIV, but we are so far down the road compared to where we were for many, many years, at being able to contain and eventually eliminate the disease . . . People live really long and healthy lives with HIV.”

Their client-load includes about 6,000 people across the state and these are primarily on-going clients. The Knoxville office sees about “three to four hundred people” who are HIV positive. “Our big win would be if we didn’t need to be an HIV provider anymore, but as of now, people really need these services.”

“We are well known for our support of the LGBTQ+ community and that’s really important to us. We are so much more than LGBTQ+ accepting, we are affirming and that’s a culture that we intentionally create here. It’s very important for us to be a safe place . . . This work is really challenging and the stigma that people get in their daily lives can be beyond the pale.” She’s proud of their team and said that 100% of staff in a recent survey said they felt what they do is important and makes a difference. “Our model here is that you don’t have to do anything to be deserving of care. Just by nature of your humanity, you are deserving of care . . . and our team is going to take care of you.”

The non-profit receives a range of funding, including state funding as a direct appropriation which started in 2023. It came about as a replacement for funds lost when the governor declined CDC funding for HIV. While they initially were terrified at the loss of funding by his decision, they ultimately got not only direct funding from the state, but the CDC money found its way to them through a CDC grant through the United Way of Greater Nashville. Ironically, the increased funding has allowed them to expand their services. It’s allowed them to fully staff programs, add needed positions, and expand prevention programs. They will soon add home-testing to their services via the website.

Positively Living, 1925 Ailor Avenue, Knoxville, April 2024

While funding comes from many sources, contracts to provide services generate a large portion and some support comes from federal programs. Fundraising and donations also play a big role, particularly in their “Hope Fund.” It’s an internal fund that also includes the “Hope Respite Fund.” It allows them to help with life needs not covered by other funds, like replacement tires, “or to get the washing machine repaired, or for durable medical equipment that isn’t otherwise covered or any emergency scenario.” The Hope Respite Fund is to put clients in an extended stay hotel in the case of an emergency. It covers people, for example, who are released from the hospital and need to not be on the street in that condition.

The Hope Fund and Hope Respite Fund are each supported largely by donations. The group also plans a fundraiser so0n, Dining Out for Life, in which all money generated will go directly to those programs. It involves a full day in which participating restaurants will donate a portion of their proceeds to the program. It’s an international program and this is the first year Positively Living has participated.

For now, they are soliciting restaurants to participate and, if interested, restaurants can reach out through the link above or by calling 865-525-1540 (Deadline April 30). The event will happen June 27 (I’ll remind you and provide details) and they’d like to see everyone come out, enjoy a good meal, and help the cause.