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A Chance to Savor the Gifts of Fatherhood

Bethesda House gives homeless single fathers with HIV/AIDS a stable place to focus on parenting.

November 01, 2000|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In body and spirit, Cage Garrett Jr. had withered like an old, crooked elm in the dead of winter. He could barely lift his head or speak, and his T-cell count was dangerously low. He didn't know the day of the week, but that didn't matter, because each seemed molded by the same gray agony.

It was almost Thanksgiving, 1998. Homeless and HIV positive, Garrett sought shelter at the Salvation Army Bethesda House in downtown Los Angeles.

"I have a son," he said quietly during his intake interview, emphasizing that it was not an option for the two of them to be separated.

In Los Angeles County, the Bethesda House, on James M. Wood Boulevard, is the only HIV/AIDS residential care facility--and one of the few such facilities in the state--that accepts single men and their children, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Though most residents who come with children are women, since 1995, 38 men and their children have resided at Bethesda. "I think we've stereotyped the type of person whom we expect to see in the AIDS community," says Anne Calvo, former executive director of the Bethesda House and now the Salvation Army's divisional health advisor. "For some reason, they [single men with children] have slipped through the cracks."

Bethesda has 16 units and can accommodate up to 50 residents. It is, says Calvo, the largest residential care facility in the state catering to homeless individuals and families affected by HIV and AIDS. Next year, it will move into space at the Salvation Army's new $9.3-million Alegria complex in Silver Lake, which upon completion will be one of the largest facilities in the nation catering to homeless families affected by the deadly disease. The new complex will offer permanent and temporary housing.

Bethesda, located near Staples Center, is not a hospice. Rather, it is a place where people learn to live with the disease. There is a rooftop playground and day care. Though a nurse is available 24 hours a day, the presence of AIDS is largely silent, overshadowed by the sounds of children playing and the encouragement of staff.

Many residents are also recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse. Some suffer from mental illness. Many of the women have been victims of domestic abuse.

Men and women at Bethesda face many of the same challenges and fears, says director Doug Loisel. The goal is to bring stability to their lives, assisting them with the rigorous medication needs of HIV and AIDS patients and with job training and education to facilitate independent living.

Parenting skills are stressed. "They have opportunities to interact with their children without having to worry about the whole plethora of peripheral problems," says Loisel. "So what we see is parents learning to be better parents. We have high expectations in that regard."

But just outside the three-story building, people sleep on the sidewalk next to shopping carts filled with the harvest of gritty streets, a reminder to Bethesda residents that their pasts are never far away.

Scars Are Reminders of Wasted Years

Garrett Jr., 53, lifts his shirt to show where a blade was thrust into him in 1986. Richard Marquez, a recent Bethesda resident, would rather not discuss the jagged crease that trickles down the left side of his skull. For both men, scars run deep.

The scars are reminders of what they describe as wasted years: drugs, booze, prison, streets that lured and nearly claimed them.

"Positive."

It's the only word Marquez heard when informed of the results of his HIV test in 1992. When he heard that word, he says, the world turned silent. The doctor continued talking, but Marquez couldn't hear. "Positive."

Garrett Jr., who grew up in Santa Monica, expected it. He could see it in the mirror. By the time he was diagnosed in 1995, tuberculosis had also set in. He had lost considerable weight. His T-cell count had dipped to near zero.

A heightened sense of mortality changed both men, and what they share now is a commitment to faith and fatherhood, a longing to do this one thing right with their lives.

Garrett Jr. and his teenage son, Cage Garrett III, 17, lived at Bethesda for 10 months. And the older Garrett, whose health has recovered significantly due to the effectiveness of current medications, still returns to Bethesda, volunteering his time to help with cleaning and landscaping.

"It feels good to be here," says Garrett Jr., who now lives with his son in a subsidized apartment overlooking the Santa Monica Pier.

Garrett, who has a sharp wit and a friendly, outgoing demeanor, struggles to make sense of his life. He wonders why a person who has squandered so much time has been given so many chances to live. There are vast mood swings, moments of depression and loneliness. But at Bethesda, he is upbeat, radiating hope.

"There's a lot of support and understanding here. I don't know where I would be, or where my son would be, without this place."

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