The New Untouchables

Anxiety over AIDS is verging on hysteria in some parts of the country

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Concern is growing over the possible spread of AIDS in prisons. In Denver, nervous officials quarantined a 16-year-old, convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, because he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. He ate off disposable plates, which, along with his bed linen, were incinerated after being handled with gloves and double-bagged. Later tests showed he did not have the disease. In prisons where sodomy and drug use are commonplace, some inmates are fatalistic. Says Nadim Khoury, chief of health services for the California department of corrections: "They say, 'What more can happen to us? I'm sentenced for life.' " Many AIDS victims have nowhere to go: they have been turned out of their homes by fearful roommates or families, and their money has been exhausted by heavy medical bills. The problem is especially poignant in the case of orphans and abandoned children; in Florida's Dade County, one of these youngsters with AIDS is being raised in a county hospital. In New York City, the Roman Catholic archdiocese tried to set up an AIDS shelter in an unused convent on the Upper West Side, but backed off when parishioners refused to send their children to the neighboring parochial school. The privately run AIDS Resource Center in Manhattan managed to find housing for 21 victims in four buildings, and persuaded the city to pick up part of the cost. At $700 a month, it is cheaper to house them in these apartments than to leave them in city hospitals (cost: at least $4,000 a week).

The search for housing can become blackly absurd. When an AIDS crisis center in Atlanta tried to rent a home for victims, real estate agents refused to help them. One even ordered the center's representative, who did not have AIDS, out of his car. "There's just too much I don't know about this disease," the panicked agent protested. "I have kids. I didn't know what you wanted this property for." The center finally found a house for AIDS victims by keeping their ailment secret. Bounced around by unnerved officials, some AIDS sufferers have become pitiful nomads. Fabian Bridges, diagnosed in Houston as having AIDS, wandered to Indianapolis, where he was arrested for stealing a bicycle. When a local judge, John Downer, heard that Bridges had AIDS, he reached into his pocket, gave the defendant $20 and told deputies to put him on a bus for Cleveland. Bridges, 30, was supposed to visit his mother there. Instead, he took to the streets, where he began peddling sex. The city offered Bridges medical aid and lodging, but he drifted from one shelter to another before getting arrested on a street corner for disorderly conduct. Released, he was last reported heading for Houston to "pick up his van." Cleveland officials, who cannot find any legal authority to incarcerate him indefinitely, were noticeably relieved to hear that he had left town.

When their condition is found out, AIDS victims often encounter severe discrimination on the job. Hairdressers, barbers and food handlers are routinely fired. In New York, AIDS victims fired from their jobs have brought more than 150 cases of discrimination. All have been settled with back pay or reinstatement.

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