Spinners of Web

They looked on as she removed the dental dam from a plastic bag. She held it up by two corners, blue and diaphanous like a veil.

“For oral sex, for safety,” she said, “one of the things you can do is cut a condom right down the middle. Cut it in half.”

The men, black and white, young and not, nodded and emitted grunts in agreement.

“Lay it on the vaginal area – that’s one way to do it,” she continued. “Or, get you some non-microwaveable Saran Wrap.”

Yesterday, Judy Howell, dressed in denim from head to toe, headed inside to plan out her month. Her office is one of several cavernous rooms inside the old home. It smells of wood. It creaks.

The occasional soft lamp lights the corners of the hallways and the living room, but a colossal morning sun blasts through three tall windows behind her desk. A DSM-IV sits idle beside a coloring book on a bookshelf stuffed with pamphlets with titles like “How To Find The Right HIV Combo for You,” “Managing Diarrhea for the HIV Positive,” and “HIV and AIDS Information for Inmates.” These pamphlets are brightly colored, bold print endeavors usually featuring a series of quirky cartoons and lists of facts. Most of them are produced by the Mississippi State Department of Health.

“There is more HIV out there than I first thought,” said Howell as she looked through her calendar. “There is more work to be done.”

Howell originally thought she would go into hospice work after caring for her parents throughout their final years, losing her mother to Alzheimer’s and her father to cancer. When she heard the position of house manager was open at Haven House, she leapt at the opportunity.

“In this business you tend to look for small intrinsic rewards. If a client doesn’t work out, you’re just happy to know you gave them a bed and a roof over their head for a little while,” she said, adjusting her heavy glasses and smiling. “We’re all free men.”

Howell retrieved a poster from behind a stack of cardboard boxes, boxes filled with female condoms. The poster was covered with images of healthy, beautiful people – men with rippling muscles, women with long necks and shimmering hair. She explained how people could have HIV for more than a decade before showing any symptoms. She pointed at the images clipped from magazines saying any one of these people could be infected.

“With the education I do, the rewards are similar. You may talk to 100 people, but you can tell only three of them heard you. But, those three will hear and heed,” she put the poster away, “There is no instant gratification with my work.”

Later, after Howell takes Troy to his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the rest of her day will be filled with phone calls to set up appointments. She will speak in front of nurses, inmates and social workers throughout the week.

She will tell them about a retired English teacher who spent several lonely years biding her time after the death of her husband. She drank herself into a dark place, but eventually started dating again and started to embrace life. At 70-years-old, she broke her hip, and at the hospital she discovered she had AIDS. She had not been sexually active since her late fifties.

She will tell them how one of the residents last year who had full-blown AIDS called her in the middle of the night after injuring his head. She cut her hand on the door of her car before holding his head as he went into shock. His blood ran over her wounds, and she took 30 days of HIV medication before testing negative. She will tell her audience what one month of pills feels like for an HIV patient. She will tell them about screaming in her sleep and fainting without warning. She will tell them what it feels like to linger in an empty hope that this is not happening.

Howell will tell stories like this with a Zen calm and a matter-of-fact tone calculated to drive the point home like a nail to the forehead.

“There is this saying I love. I don’t know where it came from, but it goes like this: When spider webs unite, they can tie up lions,” Howell splayed her fingers then interlocked them. “If I can weave a spider web of education, I’m doing all I can do. I’m one more spider out there trying to spin.”

Today, she explained how most other kinds of cling wrap are porous, which won’t prevent HIV – which means they won’t prevent AIDS. It is deep into her presentation now, near the end. The homeless men shift and grumble as much as they listen.

She raised her voice and paused dramatically; held high, the indigo square caught the light squeezed through the clouds outside and shimmered, “It’s just about the greatest thing in the whole wide world.”

The homeless men laughed.

Howell has gone through this routine over one hundred times. By her estimation, she speaks to more than 2,000 people each year across southern Mississippi. She frequents schools, prisons and clinics – wherever they will have her. She is not blindly idealistic about what she does; she knows how large the battle it is and how small her weapons are.

The enemy is ignorance. In Howell’s world, it manifests itself as HIV, the retrovirus bent on destroying the human immune system, and AIDS, the syndrome left behind after HIV has laid waste to the lymphocytes the body needs to ward off infection.

This day, she spoke with her principal audience – men with little left to lose, little reason to be cautious. The dental dam is a favorite prop for Howell. Many people have never seen or heard of them before. The flat patch of latex was designed to assist dentists in isolating teeth from the inside of the mouth. Howell wants her audience to use them before going down on questionable women.

One man in a wheelchair, his hair and beard as wild as reeds in a pond, excused himself to take a phone call on his cell. Vincent, a gaunt and angular black man who wore a dapper hat and crisp dress shirt, presumably to thumb his nose at homelessness, kept interrupting Howell to explain to the others how AIDS had long since been cured but the government was keeping it a secret.

Howell listened to his rant, and then she went on to talk about saliva and how to pinch the air out of the tip of a condom.

Vincent leaned back in his chair at the long table standing at the center of the meeting room as if he was a wizened traveler listening to a circus barker. The other men were propped up against the walls. A dry-erase board hung across from a bank of windows, and outside, behind the low-rent apartments and all the children making noises, the sun had all but disappeared.

“I saw this huge muscle-building guy pull a condom up his arm and up over his shoulder,” Howell said as she pretended to do the same. “Then he reached over and put a dab of Vaseline on his finger and rubbed it on there. It dissolved before our eyes.”

The shelter smelled like a gym, but was clean the way nursing homes are clean. This place was hidden deep among the poorest of neighborhoods here. Sponsored by a local hospital, it was once a dilapidated hovel amid a throng of homes sagging just out of sight.

Hattiesburg is one of the larger towns in Mississippi, one thriving in the depths of the Deep South. It is both a college town and a retirement community – an oasis of franchises and mini-malls in a desert of poverty and aging hamlets. This is a place where chicken houses and golf courses rub shoulders. The cost of living is dazzling low. So, the mildly affluent eat and sleep well. At the other end of the spectrum, the homeless are more invisible than most, more homeless than most. Many live in the wilderness though no one here knows it, or won’t admit to it.

Howell is a representative of Haven House, a place where Hattiesburg’s homeless who are also stricken with HIV and AIDS can come to get their lives back on track. It is a place where those who are looking toward an inevitable future can buy time, reenter society, get a job, an apartment, and turn their backs on what got them here.

As Howell asked the men to raise their hands if they believed one can get HIV from a toilet, she conjured up images of a teacher at the center of one-room schoolhouse.

At first glance, she comes across as an aging hippie, but soon casts her spell on you, convincing you of her true form – sad sage. Perhaps all those speeches and dour audiences have formed her into this, but she overflows with information her cause. She calmly articulates both local and national statistics as well as prevention strategies, visiting each topic with her wooden whistle of a voice. She laughs often, a raspy staccato, breaking off of hearts the ice shelves such themes tend to create.

As she spoke to the men, it was clear some of what she was doing had become automatic – a play she had performed so many times the words came out as sing-song. Still, when the audience was willing to talk, to interrupt, she was willing to be candid.

A sleepy, slow-blinking man against the wall told her people in Hattiesburg were so promiscuous it wasn’t feasible for everyone to keep up with testing and sexual histories.

“If you know someone well enough to stick it in them,” she told him, emphasizing each syllable, “by God you ought to know them well enough to talk to them about it.”

When she goes out into the world to give these presentations, she often brings along one of the people staying at Haven House, someone close to leaving who has gotten as much as they can out of the experience. Today, it is a black man with overlong arms and legs wearing thick-rimmed hipster eyeglasses.

Troy waited his turn to speak as Howell released a fistful of brochures on the table at the center of the room. For most of the hour she has been speaking, Troy handed her props and encouraged her in the way Ed McMahon would when Johnny fell flat.

She explained to the men homosexuals were less likely than heterosexuals to have HIV and AIDS. She told them homosexuals had been grappling with the problem since the early ’80s and had learned to protect themselves. The truth passed over them for a moment, and then she used her hands to mime the bar graphs she had forgotten to bring. She ended by addressing the necessity of clean needles and honesty. She urged them all to get tested for HIV. She introduced Troy.

He cleared his throat. There was a fresh silence in the room. He started by explaining T-Cells and the immune system in the most basic of terms. Then, he bluntly segued into his own history of drug use and careless sex back when he was a truck driver. He seemed articulate, but was no public speaker. He stumbled often, getting lost in the logic of what he was trying to tell. When he felt the crowd warm to him, his native slang kicked in; the tone of his voice became more aggressive.

“In September of last year,” he said, taking a breath, “I got gonorrhea from a young lady.”

He explained how he went to health department for treatment and how they gave him pills. Then, he returned to both the street and crack cocaine. Eventually, he was arrested in a complicated drug bust where the cops handcuffed all the people at the scene and sorted them out later.

Yesterday morning, Troy and Howell sat behind coffee and cigarettes and looked on as one of the residents of Haven House left for the real world.

Howell’s is part of a team which includes her husband Jim and the director of the AIDS Service Coalition of Hattiesburg, Kathy Green.

Jim, a large man with hair so white it looks edible, coordinates the daily activities of the residents and helps them figure out the bureaucracy of modern life by training them to perform well at job interviews. He shows them how to fill out paperwork and manage a budget. He sets goals; the residents meet them and are ready to go out on their own in under two years.

Green is the politician and the business manager. She is blunt and insistent and seems as though she would fit in well on the floor of a stock exchange. She deals with the government and finds grant money to keep Haven House afloat.

In Green’s office, photos of her partner and their 6-year-old child line a fireplace mantle. A dead typewriter teeters on top of a filing cabinet. Paperwork hugs a computer in the corner; above it a child’s drawing shares space with a sign that reads, “If you smoke anymore you will be switched, if you stop you will get some candy.”

Green speaks with a sharp and clear vocabulary. She is the mother brain of Haven House and fears for its safety while also dictating who can and cannot come there for help. She once ran a consulting firm and was director of planning for the city, so she has something many people devoted to helping lack – objectivity.

Green knows she is running an institution devoted to the HIV and AIDS-positive homeless in a state where a city council member recently denounced a $2 million community development block grant because some of the money might reach the kind of people she looks after.

“He said people with HIV and AIDS should die,” said Green. “But, with all the people like him I have met, I see it is more about ignorance than meanness.”

Green said when she first took on the responsibility of Haven House she also had a two-dimensional view of homelessness and HIV.

“There are 5,783 reasons a person might have HIV or become homeless,” she said. “Sometimes they are homeless people who just happen to have AIDS. Many come here who became homeless because of AIDS – the family was unwilling to deal with them. Sometimes it’s substance abuse or poor education. You can’t say it’s X, Y or Z that brings them here.”

Independence is the goal of Haven House, said Green. The people who make it through the application process, which involves sobering up and meeting a number of requirements including age, health and criminal record stipulations, run the house on their own. The employees leave every afternoon and usually do not come in on the weekends. Residents make meals in the kitchen and grow vegetables in the garden. They share a single yellow dog and an aquarium filled with fat goldfish.

Kathy and her employees make sure the pantry is stocked, the roof isn’t leaking and money for electricity and property taxes flows in.

“I feel inadequate and overwhelmed just about every day,” said Green, who added she wakes up most nights around three in the morning worrying about random problems, like if she ordered enough drug-testing kits. Sometimes she gets out of bed feeling guilty for something overlooked, like running a resident to the store to buy underwear. Then, on top of all of this, there is the looming presence of the intolerant Bible-belters who have yet to come around to why Haven House persists. Unlike cancer, AIDS is preventable, and typically results from a series of poor, sinful choices. Sometimes this gets in the way of charity.

“We’ve all done risky, stupid things,” said Green. “The question is, do people who do stupid things deserve to die or be ostracized?”

According to Green, Haven House is only just back on its feet. Katrina dealt $90,000 worth of damage to the building. Green remembered how some people were turned away from shelters when they admitted to having AIDS. She lamented how people in Mississippi can legally be fired for being homosexuals.

“When people condemn what we do, we turn the other cheek and hand them a brochure.”

Today, at the presentation before the homeless shelter, Troy had the crowd captivated. They were connecting to him. His honesty was crippling.

In jail, a representative from the health department told him he had tested positive for HIV. When he was released, he told no one. He returned to crack, falling deeper into depression. By the time he got up the courage to return to the health department, his condition had changed.

This was the big reveal, the twist – the healthy, straight and respectable man sitting inches away from a captive audience had AIDS. This was the sort of education Howell intended, and as Troy told them about his weight loss and struggle to get off of the streets, the men gained hope. If he could do it, so could they – and they had a head start of sorts if they were willing to do what Howell suggested in order to remain free of disease.

Troy looked into Vincent’s eyes, “Look, I was like you. I heard about Magic Johnson and wondered if there was a cure. I’m here to tell you – there is no cure.”

Vincent said nothing.

“Here I am now, I’m living with this disease and have no symptoms. I was having unprotected sex and getting high the whole time not knowing.”

The men sat crooked, leaned in.

“For a long time, during my drug-using, I used to pray to God to help me to do something, to help me get off drugs. And this…” his arms were up and his hands wide, “I don’t want to confuse ya’ll or nothing. But, I thank God today for AIDS, because if it wasn’t for AIDS, I’m 90 percent sure I would be out there with a crack pipe in my mouth and a fifth of liquor in my hand. That was me.”

The room was a tomb.

Troy said, “Do any of you have any questions?”

Vincent raised his hand.