To Rob Chapple, the fear is palpable. He sees it in people's faces when he tells them what he does. Or in their apparent unwillingness to deal with what he considers a major problem.
The problem, he says, is AIDS. People are dying of it. Shunned by friends and family, they are often destitute and alone. Victimized by an irrational public aloofness born of fear, they have no place to go.
Chapple, 37, wants to change all that. "There's no reason these people should have to die alone," he said. So he and a companion have opened their hearts and their home to them. In Long Beach, a city which, like many others, finds itself host to a growing tide of victims of the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Chapple and his friend have become the first to offer their home as a permanent sanctuary to the Long Beach AIDS Project.
So far, two patients--one on a live-in basis, the other part time during the day--have taken them up on it. Chapple hopes another will move in this weekend. And Ray Kincade, coordinator of the AIDS project, hopes the example Chapple is setting will be followed by others.
Of the more than 100 people diagnosed since 1982 as having AIDS in Long Beach, he said, 25% to 30% have received some sort of support service from the AIDS project, ranging from group counseling to help with medical bills. In the past five months, he said, Project Ahead--a private support group working closely with the state and city-funded AIDS project--has received more than 20 requests by AIDS patients for short- or long-term housing. In cases where relatives or friends cannot be persuaded to take them in, he said, patients are put up in apartments or hotels.
This year, according to Kincade, the project has budgeted $50,000 for the housing of destitute AIDS patients--money it hopes to raise through grants, private donations and local fund-raising events.
"I like to think that they won't end up in the street," Kincade said of the AIDS patients in Long Beach, whose number he expects will double in the next year.
Enter Chapple, a former San Francisco property manager who first became interested in AIDS five years ago when a number of young men living in one of the hotels he owned came down with the disease. Concerned, he paid a visit to San Francisco General Hospital to help cheer them up. The patients were so appreciative, he said, that "I realized that a lot of people didn't know this kind of emotional support was needed."
Since then, Chapple, a homosexual, has lost five good friends to AIDS. So two years ago when he moved to Long Beach because the "life's companion" with whom he has lived for 18 years got a job transfer, it was not surprising that Chapple would get caught up in local efforts to support AIDS victims. In fact, because his companion--who is a warehouseman--now supports him financially, Chapple's time is free to devote almost exclusively to what he considers a major issue of the decade, namely the care of and advocacy for AIDS patients.
His first referral from Project Ahead was a 29-year-old former education student in the latter stages of AIDS whose family, according to Chapple, was having difficulty dealing with the disease. Sleeping in a back bedroom of Chapple's cozy North Long Beach home, the young man stayed several weeks until a reconciliation could be achieved.
Next came Terry Salmon, with whom Chapple spends more than 20 hours a week playing cards, attending movies, or just chatting. "Talking with Rob has been a big help," said Salmon, 32, a former oil refinery worker and graduate of Long Beach Jordan High School.
Chapple says he doesn't worry about catching AIDS because studies show that it cannot be spread through casual contact. To maintain his safety, he says, he simply employs ordinary household sanitary practices.
Although he receives $250 a month from Project Ahead for use of his extra room, Chapple says, most of it goes for extra food and expenses. But beyond material comfort, he said, what he provides is the vital moral support necessary in the face of an otherwise cheerless tragedy.
"(They need) to be made to feel like part of the human race again," he said of his charges. "Nothing has touched me more profoundly than (the AIDS crisis). How I respond is the most important issue of my life."