FORT WORTH, Texas — Cynthia Smith held two pictures in her hands, and the differences were apparent.
The picture in her left hand was of a pale-faced, salt and pepper haired, dismal-looking Smith—a picture of her past.
In the other hand was her present picture: a cheerful, bright-faced Smith with burgundy colored hair.
She sounded jubilant as she shared her post-prison story. Smith said she was lucky to find a home after being out of prison—the Samaritan House, a house that accommodates people infected with HIV/AIDS.
Smith said, with an embarrassed laugh, that she started using drugs at the age of 7 and became addicted to cocaine, heroin and crack for the next 30 years.
Coming from a dysfunctional family, Smith said she lived a depressing life: she forced herself into prostitution, was arrested 40 times for drugs-related crimes, and served eight years in prison where she was diagnosed with HIV.
“I was relieved when I found out,” Smith said remembering instances when she wanted to commit suicide because of her depressed life. “I felt I finally did it [suicide] when I found I had HIV,” she added. Smith said Samaritan House kept her off the street and invited her to make the place her home.
According to a report released by the World Health Organization in October, the number of HIV affected people is staggering—33 million people living with it, 2.7 million infected and 2 million deaths from the disease in 2007 alone. There are more than a million people—an estimated 1,200,000 adults and adolescents—living with HIV infection in the United States.
Founded in 1993 with the purpose of advocating a positive lifestyle for HIV/AIDS infected people, Samaritan House started with 32 rooms in North Fort Worth, said president and chief executive officer, Steve Dutton. The initial establishment didn’t have many facilities and focused mainly on providing shelter for the HIV/AIDS infected people.
“Its original focus was hospice, but today it’s focused on life,” Dutton said citing the evolution and efforts the organization has undertaken over the years.
“[The idea today is] bringing the opportunity of stronger life back to the people who are infected,” he added. “We rescue, nurture and launch.”
For people to make Samaritan House their homes, they must meet certain criteria. They must be HIV positive and 18 years or older. In addition, their income level must be 20 percent of area median income or below, which would meet the federal definition of poverty.
After finding he had HIV, 43-year-old Steven Compton from Waxahachie quit his job in Houston and “moved home literally to die.”
His voice trembled, eyes moistened, and his face turned red as he shared his past.
Compton said he was mugged and raped after a night-out in Houston, and within months tested positive for the deadly virus in 1992. After many visits to the hospital and being physically weak and emotionally distressed, Compton said he found the Samaritan House, which was a home and a community.
The Samaritan House accommodates people in its main building when they initially come, said Sarah Deats, director of communications.
The 61 single-occupancy rooms in the main building with attached bathrooms resemble much of a college dorm room with a bed, mini refrigerator, microwave and telephone. Though it is a temporary room for the residents, they expressed their attachment to the place; some of the doors to the rooms were decorated and styled according to the resident’s taste and some had already prepared for Christmas with Santa Clause and Holly Leaves.
The lobby, which also serves as a living room, is well furnished with couches and TV, a computer, bookshelf and an old piano with a musical notebook sitting on a stand.
The lobby leads to the dining room, which looks like a buffet restaurant with buffet sets, soda machine and seating arrangements.
The rent for living in the main facility is $50 a month or one-third of the resident’s adjusted gross income, Deats said. However, for residents who cannot pay, a grace period is offered until they can get Section 8, federal assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for low-income individuals and families, or the organization connects them to any financial supporters who can provide them help.
The Samaritan House gets about 75 percent of its funds from the federal government in the form of grants administered by the state, city and county, Dutton said. The remaining funds are collected through donations from individuals, corporations, families and various programs, he added.
Compton said the Samaritan House serves its mission by providing transitional housing and support for people suffering with HIV/AIDS. He said though he is “scared of the process of dying with the disease,” he finds solace in the company of other residents and staff and enjoys the facilities he receives at the House. Compton has been receiving medical attention and counseling to cope with the disease.
Smith also regards the House as her home.
“I don’t have to do it alone,” she said. “I have my family and friends.”
Residents in the main building, who need the maximum medical care and attention, usually stay there for a year. After living in the main building, many residents choose to move on with their with renewed strength to cope with the disease.
Samaritan House’s The Villages with one- two-and three-bedroom apartments is an option that many residents choose after making a way out from the main building to live an independent life. It is also a bridge between the patient and families since they get to live together.
As the disease began to affect more women, children had to be a part of the equation, Dutton said. Out of 370 people living in one of the 66 apartments, half of them are women and children.
“They’re not infected by the disease, but they’re affected by it,” Dutton said.
However, the rent is higher than what residents pay at the main building; it’s about $600 a month including all utility bills, Deats said.
Dawn Shepard moved into The Villages after being released from prison in 1999 and since then has made The Villages her home.
Sitting on a couch in her living room with a downtown view, Shepard gushed with joy as she shared her love for The Villages and said the Samaritan House helped her to build self-esteem and a positive outlook on life.
“I wouldn’t have to let this disease defeat me,” she said, and added that the families living around her apartment have a sense of self worth.
The Samaritan House allows HIV infected people to carve a path to success, Dutton said. The organization provides its residents with various opportunities to get help finding employment, get back to work and be a part of the community instead of being an outcast. It also provides them with scholarships to go back to school.
Even after a long hiatus from education, Smith and Compton dream of getting a college degree. Smith hopes to complete her business degree that she started in prison, and Compton wants to study cosmetology, his childhood dream.
The Samaritan House helps people to fulfill their dreams and restructure their life after graduating from the House, Deats said.
“Our goal is to help people as much as possible to meet their highest potential and make them independent members of the society,” Deats said.
Even though they’re living with a life-threatening disease, people with smiling faces and high hopes share their stories with each other at the Samaritan House. The residents said they live for the day, look for a tomorrow and aspire to fulfill their unaccomplished dreams
Smith and Compton agreed that having HIV/AIDS is not the end, but can be a new beginning.
“I came here to die,” he said. “But it’d be very long before that.”