Have Tents, Will Travel in San Francisco

Testing facility travels to clients

By Melinda Young

Continuum of San Francisco has a goal of finding people who are unaware that they are HIV-positive through its grant from the Advancing HIV Prevention Initiative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"We estimate there are 1200 people, just in our neighborhood, who are HIV-positive and don’t know it," says Cicily Emerson, MSW, director of prevention services for Continuum.

A Real Outreach Effort

"The Tenderloin area has a high rate of homelessness, lots of residential hotels, and a lot of street activity, including sex work, heavy drug dealing, and panhandling, and it’s basically a busy area with a lot of street activities," she says. "So the idea was to reach out and try to engage the ones who were positive and get them into HIV care and reduce their risk."

To meet this goal, Continuum has invested in 2 inflatable tents measuring about 20 feet in diameter. One of the tents contains a lobby, and the other has individual counseling rooms.

The tents are stored and transported to testing sites each day in a mobile van, and Continuum has permits to set up the tents in parks, Emerson explains.

"The tents are eye-catching, and we try to do at least 18 [rapid HIV] tests in 1 day," she notes. "The counseling session can be short or long, depending on the client’s risk factors."

Also, the Continuum staff working in the tents include a lab manager because California requires professionals to handle phlebotomy, Emerson says.

The lobby tent is for setting up appointments, and contains a television that plays movies while people wait.

There also are ventilation and cooling systems inside the tents, which are powered by electricity generators, she adds.

The mobile testing sites provide clients with harm-reduction kits that include condoms, lubrication, and safe injection kits with a tourniquet and bleach, as well as with snacks and beverages, Emerson notes. Those tested also are given a gift incentive valued at $10, she adds.

Clients can make an appointment to be tested at the tent via a toll-free number or by walking in on one of the regular days the tent is in their neighborhood, Emerson says. "The tents are set up, weather permitting, but most of the time, it’s fairly temperate here. The temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much," she explains.

The reason Continuum uses the tents instead of relying on the mobile van is because the tents create a warmer and more private environment, Emerson says. "The idea is to have something that’s more versatile than a van," she adds. "And, maybe it will reduce the stigma a little because when there’s a mobile health van, a lot of people know what it is, and everyone knows what a person is doing there."