The story of AIDS Services of Dallas (ASD) is one of challenge and triumph.
ASD traces its beginning to 1985, when two men living with AIDS, Daryl Moore and Michael Merdian, helped form the core of what would become the PWA (People With AIDS) Coalition of Dallas (PWACD). Little was known about AIDS on a national stage, except among the astute medical community and some gay activists. By 1985, the Dallas County Health Department had recorded 125 cases and 123 deaths, and internationally, AIDS had been reported in 51 countries.
That same year, Rock Hudson thrust AIDS into the national spotlight, becoming the first major public figure known to die from AIDS, and Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, was banned from his Indiana school because he had been diagnosed with AIDS. In response to the increasing stigma facing people with AIDS, cities like Dallas began to organize community-based organizations to care for the sick and dying. Organizations like the PWA Coalition of Dallas adopted a self-empowerment philosophy and provided a support network to combat the backlash of public and media misperceptions about HIV and AIDS.
Initially, the PWACD focused on providing employment through an Oak Lawn Mail and Message Center for people living with HIV/AIDS who had lost their jobs because of illness or discrimination. It later turned its attention to housing for people living with HIV/AIDS who had lost their homes or been evicted from their apartments because of illness and/or discrimination. The focus on housing for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS remains the primary mission of AIDS Services of Dallas today.
On April 28, 1987, the PWA Coalition of Dallas Inc. was incorporated and became an IRS 501 (c)(3) exempt organization. Founders Moore (PWACD president) and Merdian (PWACD chief executive officer) were approached by an Oak Cliff real estate investor and moved to purchase for $425,000 – raised mostly through private donations — a 22-unit apartment building in North Oak Cliff to serve as the state’s first housing facility reserved exclusively for people with AIDS. Days later, the first residents moved into A Place for Us, now ASD’s Ewing Center. To more accurately reflect its work, the PWA Coalition of Dallas began doing business as AIDS Services of Dallas in May 1989.
From the beginning, ASD faced hostility and obstacles. Only months after the first residents moved into Ewing Center in April 1987, demonstrators carrying placards reading “Keep Oak Cliff Clean and Healthy” and “No gays/AIDS colonies” protested ASD’s entry into North Oak Cliff. Then the agency suffered a major challenge in late 1987 when it learned that a $175,000 donation used to purchase Ewing Center was made by an individual accused of embezzling $3.2 million from Texas thrift. Then State Sen. Eddie Bernice Johnson and a cadre of volunteer attorneys helped lead the charge to get the agency past the roadblock, and it entered into an agreement to repay the money at little or no interest.
After undergoing two phases of renovations, Ewing Center’s final improvements were completed in 1996. Today, the 15,000-sqaure-foot facility has 22 private living units. In October 1988, PWACD expanded its housing capability when it purchased Revlon Apartments, a 36-unit facility badly in need of renovation. Improvements to the facility were temporarily derailed by three fires – including arson – during a five-month period in 1988, causing more than $220,000 in damage. In April 1990, the City of Dallas provided ASD with a contract to proceed on renovations, and repairs to Revlon were completed in March 1991 after an 11-month closure.
In September 1992, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved ASD’s plan to develop Hillcrest House, which ASD currently operates in partnership with the Dallas Housing Authority. The 64-unit single room occupancy (SRO) facility opened on September 23, 1996. Additionally, ASD moved forward on building its first facility from the ground up with the Comal Gardens project, which was later renamed Spencer Gardens in honor of the work of Diana, Princess of Wales, whose maiden name was Spencer. In December 1992, ASD received funding from HUD to construct Spencer Gardens, a 12-unit facility for families affected by HIV/AIDS. Groundbreaking for the $1.5 million facility took place in September 1997 and Spencer Gardens officially opened in September 1998.
Unfortunately, PWACD co-founders Moore and Merdian didn’t live to see their legacy of empowerment flourish through today’s ASD, where residents are encouraged to live with HIV/AIDS by participating in ASD Resident Councils and/or by serving as voting members on the Board of Trustees. Residents are expected to pay a portion of their income – no matter how small – for rent and are expected to work as they are able and share in community chores, decision-making and responsibilities. Moore died of complications from AIDS in August 1988 at the age of 27 and Merdian of the same in March 1993 at 36. In February 1989, current executive director and attorney Don Maison joined ASD and Michael Anderson, former executive director of Phoenix House in Dallas, joined a month later. Today, they preside over a staff of more than 60, a far cry from ASD’s five staff members in 1989.
With an annual operating budget of more than $3.1 million, ASD operates its four apartment complexes, which are licensed by the Texas Department of State Health Services to serve 225 men, women and children in 152 bedrooms within 125 privately configured apartments. Currently, support services provided to residents include comprehensive case management, medical case management, transportation, food services, home health care and volunteer support. This range of services is designed to remove barriers to care and to empower the residents to cope with the cyclical impact of HIV/AIDS.