Mountain Causes: WNC AIDS Project a lifeline for many
ASHEVILLE – He would hang around the Grove Arcade late into the night, posing as a street hustler in a largely deserted downtown in the early 1990s. An affable, book-reading one, that is.
A slender man with a long ponytail, handlebar mustache and goatee, Michael Harney casually caught the attention of those who flocked to what turned into an after-hours public sex environment known as “The Cage.” Leaning against a wall outside and sometimes reading a book, he would beckon passers-by, motioning for a cigarette or tapping his wrist for the time.
But he did not take part in the clandestine hookups outside the vast empty building, which had been occupied by the federal government. Instead, he was there to reach out to those who did, seeking to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS by starting conversations and handing out condoms and educational materials.
“Anytime of night,” he said in an interview late last month, recalling when he got his start as an outreach worker with Western North Carolina AIDS Project. “That’s how you did it.”
While such gathering places have become less common over the years, Harney is still doing the same work with the decades-old nonprofit social services agency, commonly known as WNCAP, which has remained a lifeline for many people living with HIV and AIDS in the region.
These days, his role is more established. He delivers condoms and educational materials to coffee shops and watering holes, most of them in Asheville, and visits drug treatment centers, homeless shelters and jails.
Operating out of a nondescript building on the main thoroughfare in Oakley, southeast of downtown, WNCAP serves about 450 people in 18 counties, many of them unable to afford adequate health care. In addition to those with HIV and AIDS, it provides testing for people with HIV and hepatitis C, sometimes pointing them to a program providing access to clean needles, as well as making referrals for those with other sexually transmitted diseases.
Its support services include ferrying clients to appointments, delivering food, organizing support groups and providing financial assistance.
Since forming in 1986, the group has expanded its focus to include case management and prevention education, including encouraging people to get tested for STDs. With more than a dozen paid staff, it relies on more than 200 volunteers.
“It’s about educating the community,” Harney said.
While advances in medicine have helped extend the lifespan of people infected with HIV and AIDS, WNCAP has not found itself trying to find new ways to remain relevant. It has seen a steady increase in clients in recent years, with many coming from other states.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Harney said.
The group’s funding comes from the federal government, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as grants and fundraisers. Its next fundraiser, Dining out for Life, is on April 28. More than 100 restaurants across the region have pledged to set aside more than 20 percent of their sales for the nonprofit .
The money goes toward things like case management, housing, food boxes and salaries. It is also used to buy supplies such as condoms from a wholesaler in California, and educational materials.
In his late 40s, Harney has remained a friendly fixture in the HIV/AIDS community since joining the group in 1993, not long after arriving to town on an invitation to paint a friend’s house and help her plant a garden.
Having heard about WNCAP at a gay pride march in Washington, D.C., that same year, he visited its office to make a donation. Asked to stick around to help move furniture to a client’s house, he was offered a part-time job shortly thereafter.
“I’m an ambassador,” he said of his role.
As for how he has managed to stay engaged with a largely marginalized population over the years, he acknowledged that while maintaining a balanced sense of compassion and empathy is significant, so is showing up.
“People depend on that consistency,” Harney said.
This is the opinion of Jake Flannick, filling in for Mountain Causes reporter Beth Walton while she is out on maternity leave. Like Walton, each week I plan to volunteer around Asheville and share my adventure with our readers. If you’d like me to visit your group, contact me firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-232-5829. More at www.citizen-times.com/causes.
Want to volunteer for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project? Call Christopher Winebrenner, the group’s volunteer coordinator, at 828-252-7489 ext. 315.