When Mike Moller and his sister brainstormed fun activities to do in New Orleans, they didn’t initially consider getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases in a thrift store. But that’s what they ended up doing.
Opened in September 2022, the brightly painted shop Out of the Closet is full of pride decorations and anthems blasting on speakers. Not only does it provide fashionable clothes and accessories, but also resources and services for the LGBTQ+ community, including HIV testing.
Moller first stopped at the thrift store at the corner of Magazine Street and Sixth Street this week looking to buy some clothing. He said he was pleasantly surprised when an employee offered a finger-prick HIV test.
“They asked me some questions and even educated me about the test and other things, like how birth control is not the same as PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis],” said Moller, an incoming University of New Orleans freshman. He said he was amazed at how instant the process was. “I came here just to shop for clothes and I got something even better out of it.”
The store is part of a chain owned by the global nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation, with 21 locations across the country. According to the foundation’s website, 96 cents of every dollar made from sales goes toward providing HIV testing, treatment and prevention services. Founded in 1987, the foundation is the largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in the world, according to its website, with more than 1.7 million patients in 45 countries.
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the store offers walk-in testing services with results ready in less than 10 minutes.
According to the store manager, Scotty Booker, Out of the Closet relies solely on donations from the local community to run its business. Donors can drop off items with the staff or schedule pick-ups for larger items.
In addition to its current operations, the store also has plans to expand its services in New Orleans, including opening a doctor’s clinic and pharmacy. Both are expected to be available by the end of the year, Booker said. The store has also considered adding “healthy housing” in the back for homeless individuals with HIV or AIDS.
“Healthy housing gives them cheaper housing than what they would get outside,” Booker said, speculating that rent may be $400 a month. “Out of the Closet is a safe space, especially for those that don’t have anybody.”
Identifying himself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Booker said that he believes having more establishments dedicated to keeping his community safe would benefit everyone.
“New Orleans is a party city” with a high rate of HIV cases, Booker said. “So this is a good entity to have here, not just for the LGBT community but also for others who want to come get tested but don’t know the nearest place.”
The most recent HIV, AIDS, and Early Syphilis Surveillance report, released quarterly by the Louisiana Department of Health, noted that the New Orleans area was ranked 9th nationwide for HIV case rates in 2020 among major metropolitan areas nationwide. Louisiana ranked fourth among states.
According to Kimberly Santiago, an HIV testing counselor for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the nonprofit is committed to ending the HIV epidemic by breaking the stigma around it and teaching people how to prevent transmission.
Describing her current job as “rewarding,” Santiago said that she takes pride in educating people more on things that weren’t taught in school and correcting people of the misinformation they may have heard from social media.
“When I first started working here, I physically went out to bars and stores and even urgent care to let people know that we’re here,” Santiago said, adding that not every urgent care offers rapid HIV testing. “I would make a point to let them know that it’s free and that we don’t take insurance information, because our mission is to test everyone and to give them the help they need if someone is positive.”
Santiago said she understands the stigmas around HIV make people nervous to take the test.
“I usually like to take my time and go through everything that we’re going to do and everything that we offer before I even administer a test, so there’s no surprises,” she said. “We also need to make sure that people are ready to accept their results, regardless whether it be negative, positive … and we want them to know that they’re going to be able to handle it.”
While some questions can be very personal, Santiago said that information disclosed during the test remains confidential and that she does not force anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable with. In cases where the test result comes back positive, she provides testees with consultation and important information and resources, like how to get insurance or find services near where they live.
“The most important thing is that that person leaves and we feel confident that they’re going to get the care that they need, because that is the most important thing with this line of work,” she said. “HIV is completely 100% manageable as long as someone is consistent with their care, and that’s what they want to make sure that they get the care that they need.”
There are 41 public clinics and 19 private clinics providing STD testing in New Orleans, according to Safer STD Testing. While there are some free options available, most places do require a form of identification, with tests starting from $14 and results taking up one to two business days.
Santiago said people could also buy take-home HIV tests from pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens, with the most affordable option being around $50. After moving to New Orleans from New York two years ago, Santiago said she had found her community here and is appreciative of the opportunity to give back.
“Unfortunately, we are in Louisiana, which is a Southern state, so I have seen some, I guess you would say hate and some protests,” she said. “However, in New Orleans, specifically, it’s a very loving and accepting community that is dedicated, devoted to helping its peers out.”
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