As the largest minority group in the US, Latinos/Hispanics are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. To help deal with this crisis, the Latino Commission on AIDS, a nonprofit based in New York City, founded Oasis, which “provides compassionate, comprehensive and culturally competent wellness services to the LGBT community in New York City.” Operating for nearly a year now, Oasis provides vital HIV and Hep C testing, PrEP counseling, workshops, as well as related programs and services for those in the Latino/Hispanic and immigrant communities.
Oasis is not just a nonprofit providing valuable services to an often underserved population, they are also our neighbors! And in honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, I sat down and spoke to Gustavo Adolfo Morales Correa, Director of Access to Care Services at Oasis, to learn more about this organization and how it is helping immigrants. Gustavo originally worked with the Latino Commission on AIDS, the mother agency of Oasis, and he has served with Oasis since its beginning.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Can you give a brief overview of the type of services you provide?
I’ll first start with the Latino Commission on AIDS. We have both regional and national programs. The national programs provide advocacy nationwide for HIV prevention and Hep C prevention. But we also have a regional program that is called Latinos in the Deep South, and that’s specifically for providing services for emerging populations—so places in the Deep South where Latinos are not established already. For example, Florida, Texas, we know Latinos are there, we don’t touch those areas, because the Latinos there already have a system. But the new immigrants, those who are coming into Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, the states that do not have an established Latino community, we provide services there. Helping them in the immigration process, accessing services, and making sure that they make allies with the existing populations, instead of fighting for the same resources.
And then we have Oasis which is here based in New York City, and we provide local services. We see clients on a day-to-day basis. We provide primarily HIV and STI prevention services—that’s especially what we’re funded for—as well as HIV treatment services, biomedical and behavioral interventions. We do a lot of social work that is not necessarily what we’re funded for but that needs to happen for you to have a healthier life. We provide a lot of navigational services for clients to make sure that housing needs, immigration needs, work needs, all the different needs are addressed for them to be able to have successful links to the healthcare system.
Your organization focuses on services to immigrants?
Yes, those are the vast majority of our clients. Even before they have moved here, they are already calling us.
Ninety-five percent of our staff here is immigrant. Either “easier” immigrants, for example, like people from Puerto Rico, or other immigrants who have had a family member and they were brought here, or immigrants who go through a "harder" immigration process. We are able to provide a lot of firsthand information to clients, though it’s not an actual program, but we’re able to say, “Hey, in my case this is what worked. You should go here, or there.” We work with Immigration Equality and other similar entities. The LGBT Center, for example, has an immigration program, and so we also refer clients there.
What are the unique issues facing the Hispanic/Latino community that Oasis helps address?
It varies a lot. First of all, “Latino” is a huge concept, so there is very little space to aggregate us all in one. Definitely Central American communities have a higher need for asylum. Many of them are coming here because they are victims of violence, they are coming away from civil wars, they are coming away from drug wars, and violence overall, and/or LGBT stigma. South American clients usually do not have that need, many of them even have easier access to US through the legal system through visas, or through family members, so their needs are more regarding naturalizing themselves, which is more of a priority, because they are not running away from something.
On the Caribbean end, a lot of the immigrants, especially those who do come because they have access to visas—Dominicans who have family members, or Puerto Ricans—it’s mostly about health. They are moving because they need a place where they can get better healthcare, medications that aren’t accessible in their country. And lastly, I would state Venezuela. Of course, there are many asylum cases that clients from here need help with.
Since immigration status prevents some people from seeking health services, how do you overcome that?
We first explain to them the different options. If you’re HIV positive, it doesn’t matter what immigration status you have, you have access to healthcare. That’s it. Through ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program], other programs, you have access. So the main barrier we have is making sure that they trust us, and that they trust us with the information, and that they won’t have immigration issues. That’s specifically for those who are HIV positive.
If you’re not HIV positive then it gets a lot harder, because then you don’t have access to healthcare through programs. Many times, I’ve had people literally telling me, “If I get infected how soon can I get help?” The idea of getting infected with HIV just to get healthcare, is something that we have had to discuss. So if you’re not infected, the road to healthcare is way more up hill. The good thing is that through PrEP, which is a new biomedical intervention, those who do not live with HIV are getting access to healthcare now through the PrEP-AP, which is a program that the city provides and the state, in order for you to get regular lab tests, around the medication that you get to prevent HIV. It is not a full healthcare system, it’s not like I can go to the doctor for a cold, but at least I get regular checkups. But the main barrier is making sure they understand they do have access to it, and they don’t need to be scared.
What are the biggest challenges facing your organization?
Funding is always in the top. When you’re a CBO [Community-Based Organization], funding is always a top barrier. Besides that, the pervasive fear right now because of the electoral process that just happened. We did get a lot of—especially in the beginning—a lot of questions, a lot of doubts. “Everyone knows that you work with Latinos. Should I be there? Are they going to target me?” To be honest, it has never happened. We have never had an issue. We are aware of the reality, but we haven’t had first hand experience, fortunately. And people have noticed that and they have lessened the fear of coming here.
That was true for your outreach programs also?
Yes. To do a test in the city, we cannot do an anonymous test. The only one who can do an anonymous test is the city. So we need to ask you for a name, for an address, for a zip code, for information. And a lot of eyebrows went up, and we had to address that a lot.
You’re not legally obligated to share that info?
We need to share aggregated demographic data. Not individually identifying data.
The director of ICE recently said about undocumented immigrants, “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.” How do you respond to that rhetoric?
That’s just simply sad. That’s basically verbiage that you would use in a witch-hunt. There’s no need to use that verbiage. That definitely affects us a lot, both those who are documented and undocumented here. I might be documented here because I was born here but my parents are not. It’s not appropriate, I would say.
Apart from your organization, what other resources do you recommend?
We work a lot with consulates, consular offices, of just about every country, especially the Mexican Consulate. We worked hand-by-hand with them in creating a directory of services. Consular offices are a great resource. Besides consular offices, I would say, a lot of the different CBOs that work around health in every borough. There are a lot of other CBOs that are immigrant-staffed. That definitely helps a lot, when you need to ask questions, when you need to navigate the system, and have someone who not only does the talk but does the walk.
You have so many different programs and they’re all no doubt important, is there one in particular you want to emphasize?
The best thing is that here, we have a lot of programs, but we all work as one entity. I do not just work in one program. It ends being very cohesive, very streamlined. If I could stress, I would definitely stress the programs that are biomedical. For example, links to care for those who are HIV positive, and those who need access to PrEP to prevent HIV. Because, liked I stated, those two services open the door to immigrants for them to access the healthcare system. Once you access the healthcare system, you get a social worker, you get a case manager, we can help in housing. Those two programs definitely help a lot in the longer run.
There seems to be a very strong sense of community at Oasis. That’s something that you really try to cultivate?
Most definitely. We always verbalize a lot of “family” vocabulary here to make sure we’re a community. For many of us, we don’t have any other family members here. They’re in our countries. We are that first support system. Plus the language unites us, and we’re able to talk about different things—and the food—so yes, we definitely make sure that we have a nice community vibe here for the clients.
What else do you want people to know about Oasis?
One of the biggest questions that we get is, “Do you only work with Latinos?” And no, we don’t just work with Latinos. We work with African Americans, with African communities, with African immigrants, we have been able to get access for these clients to health services, as well for Asian clients. So yes, we might be the Oasis “Latino” LGBT Wellness Center, but we work with all communities. So everyone is more than welcome.