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Thrift stores mark World AIDS Day with free HIV tests

on December 2, 2009

For those who regularly comb Oakland’s thrift stores, HIV testing just got a little more accessible.

On Tuesday, to recognize World AIDS Day, the thrift store chain Out of the Closet offered free, confidential, on-the-spot HIV tests at all of its 21 locations around the country, including all five of its Bay Area stores. Since 1988, World AIDS Day has been observed every December 1 as a day to raise international awareness about HIV/AIDS and commemorate people who have died from the disease.

At the Oakland store near Lake Merritt, Koju Sakakibara, program coordinator and HIV test counselor for Asian Health Services, sat in a small, fluorescent-lit room in the back of the store, waiting for clients to enter. “It’s unusual but it’s nice,” he said, referring to HIV testing at the thrift store. Asian Health Services, along with La Clinica de la Raza, had sent HIV test counselors to help with the World AIDS Day event.


Sakakibara sat by a laptop, HIV test kits and stacks of medical forms. “Many times, in a clinic setting, people are nervous,” he said. “This is more casual–it’s kind of better for the community. They can come for shopping. It’s much easier to access.”

The Out of the Closet store on Polk Street in San Francisco has been offering HIV testing twice a week since April, but World AIDS Day marked the first time tests have been offered at the Oakland store. The Oakland branch will soon offer HIV testing five days a week in the two back rooms of the fuscia-and-white painted store.

At noon on a weekday, the Oakland store echoed with familiar retail sounds: the squeal of metal hangers on steel clothing carousels, the methodical clicking of a price-tagging gun, the occasional wail of a child. A few shoppers milled around while a store employee, a twenty-something Asian man with spiky hair and a snug grey t-shirt, whistled along with the Christmas music playing on the overhead speakers. There were no flashy posters to indicate that HIV tests and counseling were available in the store. Nonetheless, one person walked in purposefully and made a beeline for the back doors, waiting until a counselor invited him in and closed the door.

“We begin by asking, ‘What brings you in today?’” said Angie Baker, who was recently hired as regional HIV testing program manager to oversee all testing at Out of the Closet’s Bay Area stores, and to help launch the Oakland store’s program. Baker, who wore her long brown hair pulled into a ponytail, had a habit of tilting her head to the side as she listens and was quick to smile. “We get consent to do the test, and then we explain the ‘rapid test.’”

HIV testing coordinator, Angie Baker

HIV testing coordinator, Angie Baker

The “rapid test,” as the OraQuick HIV test kit is often called, tests for HIV antibodies and has a 99.7 percent accuracy rate. It looks like a home pregnancy test, with an absorbent tip which is used to swipe skin cells from inside the mouth. The test unit soaks in a solution for 20 minutes. Then, a trained HIV counselor delivers the result: negative or “preliminary positive,” requiring a second, different test that is sent to a lab for analysis.

It didn’t always use to be so simple to get tested. Just a few years ago, Sakakibara recalled, “It used to be that when you got tested, it was a blood test, and you’d have to wait two weeks and come for a follow-up appointment. Twenty to 30 percent would never come back because they’d be scared to get the result.”

Fighting fear and shame, and creating a culture in which everyone knows his or her HIV status, is exactly what many who participate in World AIDS Day want, Baker said. That’s why it’s important for providers to make testing as accessible and non-threatening as possible, she said. “There is still a stigma around HIV/AIDS, so there’s sometimes still stigma in the community,” she said. According to Baker, integrating HIV test counseling into a shopping trip can help alleviate some of the fear some people have of getting tested or of running into someone they know at the doctor’s office. “It’s easy to be inconspicuous here. If you see someone you know, you can say that you’re shopping for a pair of jeans,” she added.

Out of the Closet is run by the nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation that, according to its website, provides AIDS treatment and advocacy to over 90,000 people in more than 22 countries. Much of its operating capital comes from enterprises like the thrift store chain, according to Bay Area regional director Adam Ouderkirk. “Ninety-six cents on every dollar goes right back into helping people with HIV/AIDS, or getting people tested,” he said.

Testing at thrift stores may be new, but conducting HIV tests offsite from medical clinics is not, says Ouderkirk. “There are mobile vans, booths at health fairs and sometimes at farmer’s markets,” he said. “So people are starting to think of alternative ways to reach the community. It really makes a big difference to go to where people are, instead of making them come to you.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation began its practice of conducting HIV tests in its West Hollywood thrift store back in 1999, Ouderkirk said. The on-site testing was so popular that the organization began offering the service at other locations as well, including at the Polk Street Out of the Closet earlier this year.

“It fit in well with the store,” said Oakland store manager, Tony Martinez, referring to the on-site HIV tests.  Martinez worked at the Polk Street store when they began offering the tests. Martinez estimated that half the people who tested for HIV were shoppers who would decide, impulsively, to get tested. The other half, he said, who had specifically come in to get tested, would often end up buying something at the store. “It’s been positive for us,” he said.


According to the Center for Disease Control, at the end of 2006, almost half of all 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States were African-American. Black Americans “continue to account for a higher proportion of cases at all stages of HIV/AIDS—from infection with HIV to death with AIDS—compared with members of other races and ethnicities,” concluded a CDC report released this August.

Out of the Closet’s Oakland store, AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Ouderkirk says, is well positioned to connect with Oakland’s black community. “Oakland has a lot of African-American men who are infected and who don’t know their status yet,” Ouderkirk said. “That store’s location allows us to test not just African-American men but women and other people of color who are the changing face of the epidemic.”

Although the epidemic has certainly changed over the years, says Ouderkirk, protection against spreading the disease has not. Ultimately, Ouderkirk and health workers say, it all comes back to testing. The point of World AIDS Day, Ouderkirk said, is “remembering all the people who passed away, who suffer with AIDS right now. One of the ways to take personal responsibility in keeping your family and community safe is to get tested.”


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