Miami University Starts Up HIV Medication Locker Program For City’s Homeless

Miami University Starts Up HIV Medication Locker Program For City’s Homeless

The University of Miami has come up with a plan to help homeless people with HIV keep up with their HIV medication.

The program called IDEA Exchange will provide medication lockers to the homeless – secure places for them to store their medication. The medication can be picked up from a locker at Miami converted shipping container office or have their social worker give them several days’ worth of the drugs. For the homeless, holding onto smaller amounts of the drug is easier to protect.

Ivette Naida, 33, a homeless woman living under a highway overpass in Miami with other homeless persons, said keeping track of her HIV medication is tedious. She said the biggest worry all homeless people have is people stealing their stuff. Nadia was diagnosed with the virus after she contracted it after sharing needles to inject drugs.

According to a 2017 National Institute of Health study and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, homeless people often carry their belongings with them. This includes their drugs, which are typically stolen or lost while they roam the streets.

However, with the new Miami initiative, the prescriptions, which are paid for through Medicaid or a federal drug assistance program for low-income individuals, can be safely stored when needed.

University of Miami Dr. Hansel Tookes began the program in 2018 after the surge in the city’s homeless with HIV, with a number of them unable to remember where their possessions were. With these medication lockers, they’re less likely to lose their medications, and medical professionals can take the opportunity to address the problem.

Elish Ekowo is a social worker leading the outreach team, and she said the goal is to stop the spread of HIV. If the people who have it can suppress it, it means they’re less likely to spread the disease to somebody else.

According to the program, there is a 100 percent viral suppression rate among the 13 participants, which is an incredible feat considering the state has the highest new HIV diagnosis rate in the U.S. – based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are roughly 28,000 people with HIV in the Miami-Dade County area, with 58 percent of them being virally-suppressed.

Another worthwhile benefit to the program? Ekowo said people with very little self-confidence or familial support can build their self-reliance skills while also taking care of their health.

Michael Ferraro said the IDEA exchange is vital to recovery, calling the staff angels. The 52-year-old is no longer sleeping on the streets but still uses the medication locker. It wasn’t that long ago that the former heroin user was sleeping behind Taco Bell where the staff would give him his medication.

Ferraro, who had little contact with family members during this time, said even though he was still getting high, the staff made sure that he was getting his medications. By sticking by him, he finally relented into a rehabilitation program, and today, he’s got permanent housing.

Naida said thanks to the program and its support, she has more pride in herself and is taking her medication. She went 10 years without the drugs. Naida gets her drugs and other supplies thanks to Ekowo and Chevel Collington, her partner. Both social workers help Naida remember important appointments she has and provide her with encouraging words.

According to Naida, the program gives her some sense of responsibility.

Written by Mark Riegel, MD

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