Atlanta LGBTQ groups band together to open HIV testing center

Atlanta is getting a new tool to fight its HIV epidemic in the SPOT, a free, LGBTQ-friendly HIV testing site that will provide LGBTQ healthcare referrals and sexual health information.

“The SPOT was created to be a new solution of quality care for LGBTQIA folks who are not always comfortable at our traditional service providing agencies,” said Daniel Driffin (top photo), HIV activist and co-founder of Thrive SS

The SPOT opens Oct. 29 and will be located at the Rush Center, which is home to many LGBTQ organizations including Georgia Equality, Atlanta Pride and the Health Initiative. It will take over the office space previously occupied by the Jewish LGBTQ organization SOJOURN.

The project is a joint venture of the Rush Center, Thrive SS, Georgia Equality, AbsoluteCare Medical Center & Pharmacy and Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. It’s funded through a $75,000 grant from the pharmaceutical company Gilead.

“This came out of discussions about how there should be testing at Rush Center, because it's a place where many diverse LGBTQ groups congregate, where we talk about HIV a lot, but there aren't really direct services in the building,” said Emily Halden Brown, director of community engagement initiatives at AbsoluteCARE.

The SPOT, which Brown said is an acronym for something that will soon be revealed, will offer some night and weekend hours in addition to being open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. There will be one full-time staff member, and part-time work will be supplied by Brown, several THRIVE SS members and Eric Paulk, Georgia Equality's HIV policy organizer.

The organizers created a set of values to operate the SPOT, which included being sex-positive, non-judgmental, anti-racist, trans-friendly and people living with HIV-centered.

“People living with HIV are subject matter experts. We believe in our heart of hearts – prevention services and support are needed regardless if you’re HIV-negative or living with HIV,” Driffin said. “PLWH know the amazing places to receive services and the not so amazing places to get care services. We have to find additional solutions allowing PLWH to change the landscape of care if we want to see improved health outcomes, especially increased HIV viral suppression.”

Brown said a focus on prevention often excludes people living with HIV. 

“People living with HIV know how it feels to be tested for HIV and linked to healthcare, and all the pitfalls that occur when trying to navigate internalized, interpersonal and structural stigma, so they end up being the best program designers,” she said.

The SPOT hosts a launch party on Oct. 29 at noon at the Rush Center, which has free parking and is MARTA accessible.

“I think this is a true demonstration project of unique partners collaborative to make lasting changes within our region,” Driffin said.

“We have to try non-traditional ideas to expect new results,” he added.

Metro Atlanta has the fourth-highest rate of new HIV infections in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. A recent CDC report said that the number of gay and bisexual men in Georgia living with HIV jumped 70 percent between 2008-2015, making it the state with the fifth-highest number of gay and bisexual men living with HIV.

The City of Atlanta is working on fixing a federally-funded HIV housing program that activists described as “just a mess.” And a Fulton County HIV committee convened recently for the first time nearly a year after being created, but vacancies on it remain and it includes just one person openly living with HIV.