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Free HIV testing comes ‘Out of the Closet’ in Lakeview

Out of the Closet looks like any other thrift store from the outside. The shop in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood displays clothes on mannequins and books on towering shelves — but tucked away in a private corridor is an alcove of a medical center. Condoms and informational pamphlets decorate the area in baskets and holders on the walls.

Eric Amaya pops his head out of his office door in the medical center as customers sit down in the waiting area and asks, “Have you signed up yet?”

Amaya is the HIV tester and program director of Out of the Closet’s free HIV testing clinic.

Out of the Closet is one of the most recent in the chain of thrift stores around the U.S., most of which include free HIV testing clinics. The location opened in February 2019.

The store is able to offer free HIV testing to anyone — including people who came to the U.S. illegally, people without insurance and the homeless population — because the retail section of the store sends 96 cents of every dollar to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said store manager Alyssa McGregory.

“What makes us so special is the fact that not only are we a thrift store, we have the wellness center, the pharmacy and the testing center,” she said.

Out of the Closet, a subsidiary of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, not only offers rapid HIV testing but medical treatment as well, said Amaya. And customers earn a $5 coupon to the store when they are tested.

He also said that although a start date has not yet been set, the store will soon offer STI testing on Saturdays. HIV testing is offered every day of the week.

While the INSTI-brand rapid HIV tests are only able to tell the health of what the patient’s blood was like three months prior to the test date, they only take one minute to complete.

The test administrator pricks the patient’s finger, collects the blood in a tube and then pours it into a vial and solution. After mixing the blood and the solution, the test administrator pours the liquid onto a testing membrane with two more solutions.

If one dot shows on the membrane, the patient is HIV-negative. If two dots show, the patient is HIV-positive.

The free medical treatments are provided through patient assistance programs, said Dr. Mack Parayo, Out of the Closet’s pharmacy manager. The pharmacy provides more than just antiretrovials, which are the medicines that work against HIV.

“We take care of the whole person,” Parayo said. “If there’s another med [or] any supplements, we can basically say, ‘Hey, we can waive that cost for you since you’re getting your other meds here for free as well.’ … [But] we always tell patients, ‘Whatever money you can give back to us, it goes back to the care that either you receive or someone else receives.’”

So if a patient needs Vitamin D supplements along with the antiretrovials, those can be provided free of charge as well because of the unique process each body goes through when fighting off HIV.

Out of the Closet can provide free HIV testing through the AIDS Healthcare Foundation because it is a tax-exempt nonprofit that donates 96 cents of every dollar to the parent company — but it still relies solely on donations to run, whether that be money or clothes, books, DVDs and furniture for the store.

“If it weren’t for people and their generosity, we wouldn’t even be able to operate, to be able to help,” McGregory said. “It’s not just a store. It’s not just a pharmacy. It takes literally a village to keep the machine going.”

A regular customer, Orla Gray, said that she goes back to Out of the Closet because of the quality of goods that it provides.

“I love thrifting,” she said. “[It’s] definitely a cool spot with some interesting finds.”

Because the community that surrounds Out of the Closet gives so much to it, the store gives back. It participated in Chicago’s 2019 AIDS Walk & Run Oct. 5, and it set out a booth during Lakeview’s Halloween festivities to give out informational pamphlets and on-site HIV testing.

In 2020, Out of the Closet will try to be involved with the North Halsted Business Alliance, of which it is a part.

All of this publicity goes toward ensuring that Out of the Closet can stay open, but, more importantly, that its presence helps propel HIV education and awareness.

“Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s still happening,” Amaya said. “My whole point [for getting into HIV testing] was to be in the throes of things, educating people, because there isn’t a reason why this should still be happening.”

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