Open about her HIV-positive status, Shandora fights the stigma and silence surrounding HIV/AIDS by sharing her story. “When I go home, I see people dying because they kept their diagnosis a secret,” she says. “I was diagnosed 26 years ago and I’m still here. I tell people to get tested and get educated.” Now Shandora is healthy and working toward certification as a substance abuse counselor. “If you have stable housing, everything else will fall into place if you set your mind,” Shandora says.
Shandora knows firsthand about the stigma of HIV/AIDS and the importance of housing. When Shandora was in college, studying to become a nurse, she was introduced to cocaine. She quickly became addicted to the drug and dropped out of college. She was diagnosed with HIV while in prison for drug-related crimes, but felt too ashamed to tell her family. Instead, the parole board told her family, and they refused to allow her to live with them because of the their fear of HIV/AIDS. Cut off from her home and family, Shandora spent another 18 months in jail.
After Shandora served her sentence, she fell back into addiction. She stopped taking her medication and didn’t keep her appointments. Everyone around her was dying of AIDS, and she believed she would die too. Why continue when she had no hope? Shandora was homeless and staying in a crack house when her niece came and took her to the doctor. Shandora had a T-cell count of 77 and a fever of 104. When the fever finally broke, she decided that she didn’t want to die. Shandora got sober in 2008 and found work at a diner.
Five years later, Shandora found herself homeless with her thirteen-year-old son. She had been working full-time, but her low pay didn’t cover her rising apartment rent. Shandora feared that she would end up back on the streets, and after five years of sobriety, that she would lose herself to addiction again. Instead, she found a new home at the Jerusalem House Family Program. “Jerusalem House gave me hope,” Shandora says.
With supportive housing, Shandora has been able to raise her son and work. She has discovered her vocation as a counselor. “I don’t want anyone to think that there is no way out of addiction because I was that person at one time,” Shandora says. “I want to give back what has been given to me.”