LONG BEACH — The City Council last week agreed to sell a 53-year-old nurse a graffiti-covered duplex that she wants to turn into a home for children with AIDS.
The city built the duplex with federal funds for low-income residents. But after prospective buyers inspected the building and its crime-infested block on Cerritos Avenue, only Yvonne Henderson made a bid.
Henderson told council she hopes to open the home to five children by this winter. She plans to purchase the $140,000 duplex with donations and wages she earns as a nurse. Henderson said she is working on an application for a state license to open the foster home.
She runs another home, called Ebony Haus, where 10 men and women with AIDS live. Most of them are minorities and poor.
Henderson sees a growing need for homes for children with AIDS. "These are the innocent little lives," Henderson said.
Henderson, who is a grandmother, said she will find one aspect of the project for children particularly difficult. "It will be hard to watch the children go," she said. "But I tell myself, I can't play God. All I can do is try to make the children more comfortable."
More help is sorely needed, according to local doctors, social workers and AIDS activists. Currently, only one group foster home for children with AIDS operates in Los Angeles County. And Long Beach hospitals report a small but growing number of newborns infected with the AIDS virus.
At least four infected babies were born to drug-addicted mothers at St. Mary Medical Center this year, according to Dr. Roger Takla, director of neonatology. They were sent to foster families. Previously, hospital staff only read about such cases, in cities such as New York. "It's everywhere now, even Long Beach," Takla said.
A nurse with the city's biggest pediatric AIDS treatment program reports an "explosion" in the number of patients she sees. "In the last three months, we've picked up six babies, and that's just a small piece of what's to come," said Linda Siemers, coordinator of Memorial Miller Children's Pediatric HIV program.
The program's caseload has grown from a couple of children a few years ago to about 35 now, Siemers said. Half of them live with foster families.
Dr. Audra Deveikis, head of the program at Miller, said that in the past, most pediatric victims were hemophiliacs who contracted the disease through transfusions of tainted blood. But the vast majority of recent cases have contracted AIDS from their mothers, who are drug addicts or who have sexual partners who are addicts or bisexual.
These women are often so sick that they can't take care of themselves, let alone their children. Some mothers of pediatric AIDS victims are already dead.
Some foster families are afraid to take on AIDS children. Many of the newest babies are minority children. They have enormous medical needs and are almost sure to die.
One county social worker, who asked not to be identified, estimated that seven of 10 potential foster families reject her when she calls around trying to place an AIDS baby.
"Nobody really wants these kids," Siemers said. "We need a lot more foster homes. Anything that improve their life while they are in this terminal illness is worth whatever it costs."