Last week I was invited to Liverpool to speak at the Positively Together event organised by Sahir House . The event looked at some major themes identified by local people living with HIV and those who work to support them. The themes were: mental heath, poverty and ageing.
I was there to present in the Mental Health section, which opened the day.
The discussion around poverty was however the most thought provoking and urgent, as it is poverty that makes aspects of human life, such as mental health problems and getting old, overwhelming. As Rosie Robinson, Chief executive of George House Trust (GHT) in Manchester said: we cannot tackle HIV if we do not tackle poverty. She also spoke of how people living with HIV still find it hard to talk about HIV in the work place and accessing the support they have a right to. Sadly GHT has still recently supported people who have lost their job because of HIV related stigma.
This slide from Public Health England (HIV in the UK 2013) speaks very clearly of the correlation between HIV and poverty.
Not surprisingly, in the UK, poverty disproportionately affects women with HIV. Yusef Azad from NAT, quoting their report on access to the HIV hardship fund, reported that poverty among people living with HIV lives at the intersection between gender and race, and that 45% of all hardship grants provided were to BME women, to support them to buy basic food.
This high level of poverty is also happening in the context of a profound reform of the welfare system in England and this has a huge impact on people living with HIV as the newly released report: Impact of the Welfare Reform on People living with HIV in England by Counterpoint Alliance ( Positively UK, Naz, Positively East) has uncovered.
The key findings in the report are closely linked to the themes of the Positively Together day, as it shows that women from black and minority Ethnic communities, Latin Americans and white gay men over 50 are hardest hit by welfare reform. The report also also highlights that there are serious mental health issues caused by the shame and stigma that respondents feel when applying for benefits.and that social support for people facing really harsh circumstances is shrinking, as there are significant reductions in the services offered by HIV charities.
Positively Together’s last session was on HIV and ageing and it included some preliminary findings from HIV and later life (HALL), by researcher Dana Rosenfield from Keele University. And guess what….? It seems that the growing number of older people living with HIV are often poor and lonely.
You can imagine that I came out of the day feeling pretty blue. I forgot to mention that this sobering meeting was held in the fantastic brand new Museum of Liverpool where I stumbled on an exhibition on April Ashley , a beautiful and glamorous transgender woman who was born in this city in 1935 – just a year after my mum!
But what a life she lived!
The beautiful April was one of the first transgender persons to go through a surgical gender reassignment. She fought tirelessly for the rights of transgender people, at a time in which they were mainly despised and derided. But she succeeded. In 2005 through her work and the collective action of LGBT activists, the Government passed the Gender Recognition Act (2004). This means that at last people who are transgender have full legal rights. They can change their birth certificates and live their lives legally in the gender they identify.
April has been awarded and OBE for her work. I was so grateful to the Museum of Liverpool for putting such a show on. It felt good to be in a city that celebrated an incredible person like April Ashley. This wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. My depression was lifted. I felt: change is possible. Seeing the show was just what I needed to believe that we need to continue to find the energy to fight for justice. And nothing is as unjust as poverty.