Go to Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, and you'll find one of the most HIV-impacted communities in the city. But look for free HIV testing services, and you might come up short.
The neighborhood, which is home to myriad social service providers, has few HIV testing sites.
Zach Stafford, of the Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention Center based out of Lurie Children's Hospital, comes up with two, and one is his own.
"Uptown has been missed, which is really interesting," Stafford says.
Stafford is a behavioral research associate at the Center, which has just moved to Uptown, bringing with it testing services, transgender support and cutting edge LGBT medical research.
With the move now behind it, the Center is gearing up a laundry list of new plans, including the establishment of one the first clinics for transgender children in the country.
The move to Uptown
The Center has three primary functions: research, services and advocacy. Over the past two years, the ways its carries out that mission has consistently grown.
When Lurie Children's Hospital recently vacated Lincoln Park for its new downtown home, the Center was faced with some big questions.
Dr. Rob Garofalo, director of the Center, knew that a center serving LGBT and HIV-positive people would have the most impact in a neighborhood outside of the downtown area. Others at Lurie agreed that the Center should find a community-based site, rather than following the hospital.
Dr. Travis Gayles, research fellow and clinical instructor, said the goal was keep the Center close to the people it served, where clients could feel comfortable.
"Anytime you are doing community-based participatory research… you want to be in the community," Gayles said. "It's great to do research, but we really want to do research that means something to the people we're discussing."
Part of what drove that decision was also proximity to other LGBT groups.
"When you are in the community and you have footprint in the community, it allows for that first step in terms of making partnerships with different organizations," said Gayles. "I think it gives you a lot more credibility when you are in the community, as opposed to saying, 'we're going to stay in the ivory tower and come out and do it and run back.'"
But the Center also wanted to avoid replicating services. Uptown, which has some of the highest HIV numbers in the city but few LGBT-specific services, became the obvious choice.
"There really isn't another social service agency in the vicinity that targets the population that we really want to target," Garofalo said.
The Center's new home at 4711 N. Broadway puts it close to two Red Line stops. And it is close enough to both Lakeview and Edgewater to allow the Center easy collaboration with groups based in both neighborhoods.
New Gender Identity Center
Furthering the expansion of the Center, is the agency's plans to launch a Gender Identity Clinic. The move fills a major gap in gender-affirming care in Chicago.
The clinic, which is up and running but has yet to officially launch, is the first of its kind in the city and one of few resources for gender-variant kids younger than 13. Through the clinic, children dealing with gender identity issues will have access to everything from endocrinology to psychology
"As a unit, the family is not always ready to embrace terms like 'LGBT' or 'transgender,'" said Dr. Rob Garofalo, director of the Center. "I think coming to Lurie allows people to come to a place where services are hopefully increasingly culturally competent, without threatening the developmental trajectory that these families have to go through."
Garofalo created the clinic out of a patchwork of specialists already working within Lurie, a move that both has both staffed the clinic and furthered understanding about transgender lives within Lurie, he said. The Center will also employ a psychologist and a social worker.
In past years, Chicago families with transgender kids often found medical and mental health services piecemeal. While many of the city's LGBT organizations offer youth services, most of those services are designed for kids ages 13 and older.
Some families flew to Boston Children's Hospital or Children's Hospital Los Angeles, which both have gender clinics for children. But for families without the time or means to travel, finding specialists that understood gender issues and kids presented a serious challenge.
Such was the case for Chicago author Jen Carr, whose book "Be Who You Are" was inspired by her own gender-diverse child.
"Prior to this, I was contemplating moving to Los Angeles," Carr said. "This is really monumental that we could have a Midwest gender clinic."
Carr's fourth-grader has been seeing Garofalo for a year, and the launch of the clinic will significantly impact her family, she said.
Resources for transgender children in Chicago are scarce, something that Carr learned early on after her child shared that she felt like a girl. Carr approached both Center on Halsted and Howard Brown Health Center looking for resources, but she found that neither agency served young children.
"I was desperate," Carr said.
Over time, she developed connections with other parents, but even parent resources focus on the parents of transgender teens and adults.
"We haven't had an umbrella to meet under," Carr said. "We're going to have this safe space to come together, and that is just the most exciting thing."
Today, Carr is working with the Center to establish a play group and other resources for the clinic.
"This is probably the most obvious fill in the gap role for Lurie," said Garofalo. "This really should be taken on by an academic institution like Lurie because we're dealing with children from early childhood through adolescence. So I think there needs to be a lot of careful deliberation around childhood issues of development that I think a place like Lurie is well-equipped to handle."
The clinic is already seeing 30 families from throughout the Midwest, Garofalo said. It will officially launch later this year.
The new clinic was made possible due to a significant donation from the Tawani Foundation and money that Lurie itself committed to clinic.
Last September, the Center announced that it was opening a satellite HIV testing clinic in Lakeview. The Center had intended to do late-night testing in at the site, from 8 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
But its location at Briar and Broadway drew little foot traffic, said Gayles. Despite the fact that office operated when other providers remained closed, the office did not attract enough clients to justify keeping it open.
Now, the Center is in the process of moving its testing services north to its Uptown facility. In addition to testing youth under 25 years-old, the Center will be collaborating with Chicago House to test adults.
Gayles said that the Center has an edge when it comes to HIV care. Those who test positive at its site can receive a direct link to care within the agency.
Putting the Center in Uptown, said Stafford, not only fills a need in the community, but it puts the Center in touch with a growing LGBT population in the community. Stafford noted that many transgender women are pursuing college degrees at Truman College in Uptown, and a large population of LGBT people already live in the area.
Gayles and Garofalo have also signed on to see patients at the TransLife Center, Chicago House's new transgender home on the North Side of Chicago.
Plans for the future
The changes at the clinic have meant not only an increase in services but also in staff and space. The Center is already doubling its offices by taking over the second floor its new building. Its staff, currently around 25 employees, will grow to 35 people in the coming months.
And its initiatives are growing beyond medicine. The Center plans to launch transgender programming and anti-bullying efforts. It will also be researching the health impacts of bullying and doing new research on gender identity and children.
"It's about doing research that matters to communities, not just doing research but being able to do the whole picture," said Gayles. "Yes, we're doing research projects but we're linking people care and take of them at the clinic and thinking of ways to form partnerships with organizations to help try to make lives better."
For a full list of services offered at the Center, check out: www.chicagochildrensresearch.org/gender.