Walk Becomes the Road Less Traveled

Posted on March 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm

From the Park La Brea News Beverly Press. Click here to read on the website.

by Aaron Blevins

rick starr plaqueAt the end of February, the Alliance for Housing and Healing added another name — Rick Starr — to the West Hollywood Memorial Walk, which runs along Santa Monica Boulevard and celebrates the lives of people who have died from HIV/AIDS.

Plaques can be seen on the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard. (photo by Aaron Blevins)

Starr’s memorial service was the first the alliance has facilitated in more than three years, and that hiatus is a testament to the antiretroviral drugs that are helping people live with the disease, said Carole King, the alliance’s director of development and communications.

“It’s in a weird stasis,” she said of the memorial walk, adding that the alliance always anticipated fewer and fewer installations over the years. “This certainly reflects the community that is dealing with HIV and AIDS. …It’s no longer a death sentence.”

King said HIV/AIDS is still a chronic, debilitating disease, but it can be managed if a person is receiving proper care, which is now the organization’s primary focus. When the alliance was founded, the majority of its services centered on hospice care, she said.

“People were dying,” King said. “You went into our program at the end of your life. And now, we’re providing services for people for decades because they’re going to be sick for decades.”

That has presented a challenge for the alliance and other AIDS organizations. King said the Alliance for Housing and Healing works to ensure that patients are taking their HIV/AIDS medications as directed, but the most crucial element of care — a home — can be the most difficult to sustain.

A homeless patient is unlikely to stick to their medication regimen, stay under a doctor’s care and refrigerate their medicines, she said.

“If you’re not housed, you’re out of care,” King added.

The alliance offers a spectrum of housing options — from intensive, 24-hour care in its four group homes to the 153 individual units the alliance has throughout Los Angeles County. It also provides emergency financial assistance and other support.

The organization serves Los Angeles County, but it has a concentration of clients in West Hollywood. King said all of its clients are HIV-positive, and that there is a waiting list for every single one of its programs — aside from the memorial walk.

“There’s not a waiting list to get a plaque, but there’s a waiting list to get a house,” she added.

The memorial walk serves several purposes. It raises awareness of the disease, helps market the alliance’s services and provides friends and families with a sense of closure, King said.

“It helps us to heal,” she said.

The markings on the sidewalks are modest, but the permanent plaques that line Santa Monica Boulevard, from Fairfax Avenue to Doheny Drive, are a unique celebration of life for those who knew the deceased.

“It was very, very, very special,” said Clifford Bell, a friend of Starr.

Bell said Starr was a “very popular music guy” in the cabaret, musical theatre and concert world. Friends and family placed the plaque outside of Don’t Tell Mama, a new cabaret venue on Santa Monica Boulevard.

“It’s very meaningful to think that the people coming in and out of that club will see his name there,” Bell said, fighting tears.

When Starr fell ill over the last few years of his life, he expressed his desire to be memorialized with a plaque, Bell said. After Starr died on July 8, the community rallied to follow through on his request.

“We were really, really glad to be able to make that happen,” Bell said. “It’s a really moving and emotional way to have him be remembered.”

The West Hollywood Memorial Walk was created in 1993 — at the height of the epidemic — and was initially known as the West Hollywood Palms, King said. She said the idea was to place the plaques on palm trees along Santa Monica Boulevard; however, the trees were eventually replaced or removed. The alliance rededicated the West Hollywood Palms as the West Hollywood Memorial Walk in 2003.

Since 1993, approximately 150 brass plaques have been placed, King said. Every Dec. 1 — World AIDS Day — the organization cleans the plaques and places flowers on the memorials.

“And it’s a really beautiful moment,” King said.

Terry Goddard, the alliance’s executive director, said the AIDS epidemic has declined in “everyone’s psyche,” even in West Hollywood, which was the epicenter of the epidemic. So, people frequently stop alliance staffers and ask what they’re doing as they place flowers by the plaques on each Dec. 1, he said.

“I find that just amazing,” Goddard added.

The alliance — in one form or another — has been in existence since 1983. It is the product of a merger of two organizations, Aid for AIDS and the Serra Project. Aid for AIDS was created by the gay community, whereas the Serra Project was founded by the Catholic Archdiocese.

“It was a crazy idea at the time,” Goddard said of the merger.

While the organization is doing well, the need for services continues, he said.

“There’s no cure in sight, and we need all the support we can muster,” Goddard added.

King said she agreed, although reports of children being cured of the disease offers hope that a cure will eventually be found.

“We’re still a long way away from saying it’s over. I think we’re even further from saying the people we’re working with are OK,” she said, adding that some of the organization’s clients deal with a multitude of issues, such as mental illness, substance abuse and other chronic illnesses. “HIV is one major facet of what’s keeping them from being successful, but it’s not the only one.”

For information or to donate, call (323)344-4880 or visit www.alliancehh.org.