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Together For Better Health

DAP Health and Borrego Health

Together for Better Health

DAP Health and Borrego Health become one integrated health care system with a singular goal — to protect and expand local access to culturally competent care for more than 100,000 patients.

 

As seen in Issue 4 of DAP Health magazine

 

Words by Daniel Vaillancourt

 

On August 1, 2023, DAP Health and Borrego Health became one in a union sanctioned by both the Bankruptcy Court and the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). Since then, the integrated health care system has operated with some 850 employees serving more than 100,000 patients of all ages, genders, ethnicities, orientations, and socioeconomic status at a total of 25 Southern California clinics located within 240 rural and urban zip codes from the Salton Sea to San Diego.

Prior to the two federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) joining forces, DAP Health’s programs and services included primary care, infectious diseases, gender-affirming care, LGBTQ+ care, mental health, dentistry, harm reduction, recovery services, affordable housing, and social services. The Borrego Health disciplines now under DAP Health’s vast umbrella include family medicine, women’s health (including OB-GYN), pediatrics, veterans’ health, geriatrics, urgent care, and pharmacy services.

“It’s an honor to unite Borrego Health and DAP Health’s missions, as well as our region’s most exceptional, dedicated, and passionate health care professionals,” says DAP Health CEO David Brinkman. “Together, we will build a brighter future where every individual — regardless of who or where they are — has equal opportunity to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

“We will achieve this by replicating our time-tested, holistic, patient-centered care model, which addresses all applicable social determinants of health (SDOH) negatively affecting the patient population at each of our clinics. By addressing these SDOH — whether they pertain to language and literacy, housing, nutrition, transportation, education, employment and income, addiction, violence, and/or racism and other discrimination — we remove barriers to care, increase our patients’ quality and length of life, and create true health equity.”

“When all of us at Borrego Health were looking for a like-minded FQHC to take us under its wing, three things mattered most,” says DAP Health Chief Operating Officer Corina Velasquez, who served in the same capacity at Borrego Health. “Continued access to health care for our more than 100,000 patients. Continued employment for our more than 600 employees. And mission match — an organization that would share our values and our vision for continually creating more health equity in this region. In DAP Health, we hit the proverbial trifecta … and then some!”

Of note:

Every DAP Health and Borrego Health location will remain open, retaining its original name, branding, and signage for the time being.

Some 99% of Borrego Health employees accepted DAP Health’s invitation to join the combined entity. There were no layoffs or forced relocations among existing DAP Health employees.

Fellow FQHCs Innercare and Neighborhood Healthcare — allies of DAP Health who have regional and cultural expertise in Riverside and San Diego Counties, respectively — will offer guidance, support, and community connections on an as-needed basis.

DAP Health’s mission — including its commitment to LGBTQ+ health care, HIV care, gender-affirming care, and the Coachella Valley community — will expand as a result of its absorption of Borrego Health.

Over the next 12 months, DAP Health’s fortified executive leadership team — consisting of individuals from both organizations — will analyze all social determinants of health (those non-medical factors that negatively impact patients’ health outcomes) at all the clinics served. It will actively engage fellow community organizations, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses to improve health outcomes for all, whether that be by adding programs and services or improving physical facilities. By combining a plethora of strengths, DAP Health will achieve new levels of excellence in delivering comprehensive, accessible, and culturally sensitive care to its diverse patient populations.

Engagement is the Cure for Isolation

Engagement Is The Cure For Isolation

 

Brothers of the Desert vice president Eric Davis talks about how the nonprofit is working to remedy disconnection and inequalities for gay black men in the Coachella valley

 

Words by Trey Burnette • Photo by Aaron Jay Young

 

There was a growing consciousness that gay Black men in the Coachella Valley felt isolated and disconnected from the community. The issue became the topic of conversation at a 2017 New Year’s Eve dinner party. “No one in the valley was doing anything to address the problem,” says Eric Davis. “So instead of complaining about it, why not create a solution?” The men did do something. They formed Brothers of the Desert (BOD), a nonprofit organization that provides a growing, local support network for gay Black men and their allies living here. 

Davis is BOD’s vice president. The group started with meetings on the second Saturday of every month at the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs, where the men had a forum to discuss their lives and challenges. The African American population in the valley is less than 5%; gay Black men are only a fraction of that. Those gatherings continue today. 

In 2019, BOD held its first Wellness Summit. “It was a vision of President Tim Vincent,” says Davis, “and we have been able to implement that vision into reality for the last four years.” 

DAP Health became a sponsor the third year, and its partnership and sponsorship continued to grow. Another partnership the two organizations started three years ago involved DAP Health’s Desert AIDS Walk. BOD was able to walk as a group and raise money for the event. The organization also gained visibility with a speaking engagement and an event booth where they spoke with community members and provided educational and outreach information. 

Davis also happens to be the sales director and event planner for the local magazine GED (Gay Entertainment Directory.) His experience gives him wisdom and know-how when he asks himself, “How do we engage with the community to facilitate our ideas?” And they do engage. Besides the annual Wellness Summit held in November and participation in the AIDS Walk, BOD hosts the annual New Year’s Eve Legacy Gala, which serves as its largest annual fundraiser, celebrates Legacy honorees, and brings the community together to ring in the new year. 

That is the mission of BOD — to connect and engage gay Black men to the community. “If we don’t feel isolated and we feel like we can grow and strengthen,” says Davis, “we can move forward.”

DAP Health, invested in BOD’s growth, has been an active partner from a financial, physical, and encouragement standpoint, and has had opportunities to partner in BOD’s speaker series. When DAP Health needed messaging help with the LBGTQ+ community of color during the mpox outbreak in 2022, its leaders called on BOD. An mpox vaccine clinic was set up at the Wellness Summit in November 2022 at Margaritaville in Palm Springs. 

BOD’s primary concern is its community members’ mental health, which was most severely impacted by the isolation the men were experiencing. Beyond engagement in the Wellness Summit, the Legacy Gala, the speaker series, and monthly meetings, a partnership with DAP Health was formed at Greater Palm Springs Pride to create content that did not center around alcohol, was Black-centric, and appealed to allies. 

In the spirit of holistic wellness and philanthropy (part of its mission statement), BOD has been able to support the education of LGBTQ+ and Black students in the Coachella Valley with more than $10,000 in scholarships. Donations have also allowed the organization to establish an emergency fund for members needing critical financial help with rent, food, or even new tires for a vehicle. Underneath each act of giving, recipients understand, whatever the situation, that they are not alone — that there is a community available to them. Some recipients have been able to repay the fund once they’re back on their feet.

As BOD continues to grow and act on its purpose — to change the dynamics that produce isolation, disconnection, and inequities among gay Black men — the organization hopes to strengthen its partnerships with DAP Health and have a more significant presence in the Coachella Valley. It currently has approximately 125 members in the Palm Springs area, across the country, and in Canada, but it continues to do membership drives. A monthly newsletter, “Brother’s Drumbeat,” keeps the community abreast of current events and engages community leaders in conversation. 

For more information, please visit brothersofthedesert.org and follow the group on Insta @brothersofthedesert.

Lifesaving Art

Lifesaving Art

 

Patients and clients build financial stability through creative expression

 

Words by Staci Backauskas • Photos by Donato Di Natale

 

What began as a series of pop-up art shows featuring the work of DAP Health clients continues to honor the talent and tenacity of the artists while building avenues of income that improve their quality of life. 

 

It was during a 2016 career workshop that DAP Health’s then-Associate Director of Personal Development and Wellness Valerio Iovino discovered that several of the clients were artists. This led him to secure local venues to display their work, which resulted in an invitation to participate in the prestigious Indian Wells Arts Festival.

Seven years later, Wellness Center Manager Cory Lujan is excited about the ongoing evolution of the project and what it means to the artists and to the community.

When visitors enter the Barbara Keller LOVE Building on the DAP Health campus, they are greeted by a gallery that displays the art of a dozen Wellness Center patients and clients. Along with sculpture and pottery under glass, there are original oils, watercolors, photographs, and high-quality reprints on the wall. Every piece is for sale, with all proceeds going to its creator.

The original intent of sharing the art was to provide additional income. “A lot of long-term survivors lost their jobs and went through their savings,” explains Lujan. “Many of them were able to get disability of some kind, but it’s very little. The goal always was to help clients supplement that and improve their quality of life.”

Wellness Center Administrative Assistant Curtis Howard recalls one of the artists making a $1,500 sale that was enough to pay his rent for the month. “He was so excited! He was in tears,” Howard remembers. “That moment told me that this is really making a difference in their lives, not just having a venue to display their work but actually making sales of their art to the general public.”

The financial benefit is clear to watercolor artist Robert Coughlin, and the results have been lifesaving. “I can think of seven or eight examples where I didn’t think I was going to make it and a painting sold off that wall,” he says. “I was able to buy groceries or pay the light bill.”

Fellow artist George Thomas, who paints vivid collages in oil, selling both originals and prints, agrees. “Having somebody buy a piece of artwork often keeps me going.”

Another way the project continues to evolve is through teaching artists to become more tech savvy. With the aid of a grant from the Houston Family Foundation, Lujan recently hired a temporary computer expert to show artists how to create their own online marketplace. 

“Some of our clients have been out of the workforce for a while and may not have the computer skills necessary to succeed online,” she adds. “Even in terms of payment, some of them don’t know how to use Zelle or Venmo, so when a buyer says, ‘I really like this and I want it right now,’ but they don’t have the cash, they could lose a sale.” 

Although the financial aspect is key, the benefits extend further. “I can make a piece of artwork, but if I keep it to myself, there’s no satisfaction,” says Thomas. “I want people to look at it and maybe get something out of it.”

“Just reaching out to a client and saying your artwork can come up on this wall has such an impact. Everybody’s welcome to join,” says Coughlin, who began painting when he was just 3. Returning to his love of watercolor offers not just revenue but the joy of artistic expression. “After the doctor told me to get my affairs in order, I thought it was over,” he says. “This is my voice.”

Client artwork can be viewed in the lobby of the Barbara Keller LOVE Building on DAP Health’s main Palm Springs campus, which is open during normal business hours to the general public. People can also contact Curtis Howard at 760.656.8414 or [email protected] for questions or to purchase client art. 100% of sales benefit each individual artist.

Making an IMPACT

Making an Impact

 

Behind The Scenes Of The Behind-The-Scenes Tour Dap Health Offers To Prospective Donors

 

Words by Rory Taylor

 

In 2021, Desert AIDS Project rebranded itself as DAP Health, a broader name to match a broader mission. “We’ve upgraded our services to include primary care and so much more,” says Director of Development James Lindquist. “You can now get mental health care, food, clothing — all these other services. These changes coincided with COVID-19-related interruptions in other fundraising efforts, so a novel approach was needed to connect partners to the expanded mission.”

In June of 2021, the IMPACT Hour — a facility tour for prospective donors that features behind-the-scenes spaces alongside testimonials — was introduced. The visit is intended to inform and to forge connections, rather than to ask for donations.

Entering the Annette Bloch CARE Building, DAP Health’s diversity of care immediately becomes visible in the several clinics within the structure, each named for a color corresponding to chakras: yellow for the solar plexus, green for the heart, blue for the throat, purple for the mind, and orange for the sacral region. Lindquist says this was done to promote privacy and dignity for patients and clients, and to avoid creating shame and stigma. 

“You can go to any primary care physician for your services at any of our clinics,” Lindquist continues. “If you go to the reception desk, you say, ‘I have an appointment in the Green Clinic,’ and they will direct you there. They’re not gonna know you’re here because of ‘X.’”

The tour consists of three primary stops, or “buckets,” focusing on ending epidemics, health equity, and mental health and addiction services. Each bucket features a storyteller — an employee, patient, or client — who helps demystify more of the organization’s operations and reach, following a “myth, fact, gap, need” framework. 

“With ending epidemics, we talk about a myth where people believe they’re not susceptible to infectious disease,” says Lindquist. “The fact of the matter is that everybody can get infected by something. COVID, HIV, mpox. Plus, in the Coachella Valley, 15% of people between the ages of 16 and 94 don’t have insurance, compared to the state average of 10%.”

One IMPACT Hour storyteller is LaWanda Manigo, a patient and client at DAP Health who challenges stereotypes about what is broadly perceived as queer health issues. “DAP Health is not just for what some people would typically believe would be [gay] white males,” says Manigo. “I’m letting everybody know there’s other options.” 

Meeting guests in the Blue Clinic, Manigo shares how living with HIV as a straight, Black woman impacts quality of life, and how a little education goes a long way. “They have educated me about my diseases, about my health, and have just made me, overall, a better person and a more informed patient, so that I can be more proactive and take a firmer stand in my own health care,” she says. “And that’s a benefit that’s gonna last me the rest of my life.”

That education comes not only in patient-practitioner relationships, but also through learning seminars with pharmaceutical representatives, group wellness programs, and social groups covering everything from cutting-edge HIV treatment and diabetes prevention to knitting and dog walking. 

At the core of the clinic cluster is the bullpen — the first tour stop, and one that exemplifies the broader mission DAP Health has taken on. “All the providers you have at DAP Health get together in the morning before your visit to discuss your case in what they call the bullpen,” says Manigo. “Everybody is touching base, so they get an overall view of what you’re dealing with as a complete person.” Lindquist echoes the great value found in holistic care. “I think a lot of times in our health care, you just get parts of people, you get fractions,” he says. “If you’re getting your primary care at one facility, but then you’re getting your dental somewhere else and you’re taking care of your sexual wellness somewhere else, and you’re getting your therapist somewhere else — that’s four places I’ve just named! And how many of those typically will be talking to each other?” 

The IMPACT Hour tours normally happen every second Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Invitations are made by staff and current donors. 

For more information, please visit: https://www.daphealth.org/support-our-mission/

Patrick Pierre

Patrick Pierre

His Alter Ego Patty Cakes Connects People Through Love, Honesty, And A Touch Of Sass 

Words by Staci Backauskas • Photos by Zach Ivey

 

Known to many as Patty Cakes, the gregarious drag queen who creates safe spaces for people to connect with themselves and one another, Patrick Pierre moves through the world with kindness and an aversion to facade. “You’ve got to sit in the truth, right?” he asks rhetorically. “You can’t project something onto someone just so your fake idea can be your fake truth.”

Pierre’s commitment to that path stems from a childhood where he learned how to navigate between joy and trauma at an early age. At 3, his mother left him and his younger brother in Haiti to follow his father to the U.S. For two years, they lived with his grandmother in a house overflowing with young cousins whose parents had made the same choice.

It was in that organized chaos that Patty Cakes first appeared. “She was this energy with a larger-than-life personality that had the power and inner strength, the confidence to look after my younger brother,” he says. 

When they boarded a plane for New York two years later, the excitement of seeing the city lights from the air was tempered with the stress of the reunion. “When we arrived, my brother didn’t recognize my mother,” he shares. “And I was only a year-and-a-half when my father left. It felt like abandonment.”

Both his neighborhood and the Catholic school he attended were fully integrated, which showed Pierre how acceptance benefits everyone. “We had the Irish across the street, the Filipinos next door, the Jamaicans on the corner. When I look back, growing up in that community is one of the treasures of my childhood.”

Those formative years provided insights into the similarities shared by humans and the superficiality of most differences. “That’s the American fabric,” he says. “It’s not this whitewashed ‘Let’s make America great again.’ We’re the country of promises. People are at the border because they want to be a part of this American experiment. But we keep them at bay coming from a place of lack. But that was never America’s story.”

Pierre feels a responsibility to share that story with the world, and Patty Cakes is his public way of doing that. “I don’t have a guard up,” he says. “I’m here meeting you with my arms open.”

Patty Cakes first performed at the Boatslip Resort & Beach Club in Provincetown in 1994. “It was the crown jewel of bars in P’town,” Pierre says. While working as a cocktail waiter, he noticed the bar was empty after Tea Dance, so he approached the owner with the idea of doing live “Dating Game” and “Newlywed Game” shows. 

Those were successful, which buoyed his confidence and unknowingly laid the foundation for the type of drag queen Patty Cakes is — a host, emcee, and storyteller. “I cannot lip sync!” Pierre laughs. “What I do is take Patrick’s personality and identity and put them through this prism to shine them into the world.”

This is the energy he brought to DAP Health’s Pride Pavilion in November 2022, when he hosted the Speed Friending event. “It was the first time we had tried this idea of breaking isolation by introducing LGBTQ+ folks to each other in a way that was accessible to everyone,” says DAP Health Director of Brand Marketing Steven Henke. “Patty Cakes made everyone feel they were part of Palm Springs Pride.

Pierre began volunteering with DAP Health in 2013, a year after he relocated to Palm Springs from Atlanta. “I lost three houses in the crash, was thousands of dollars in debt, and had a crappy credit score,” he laughs. “So, I came West.” 

Another organization he donates his time to is Brothers of the Desert, a nonprofit that provides a network of support for Black gay men in the area. “There is the compounded stigma of being Black and gay,” he says. “Here there’s an instant connection. A lot of things don’t need to be said because they’re understood. We want to take the love and support we have within us and bring it into Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.”

Pierre appreciates the relationship the Brothers have with DAP Health, and highlights the importance of reaching more of the Black community with resources, education, and opportunities for camaraderie. “It’s been a wonderful symbiotic relationship,” he says. “DAP Health has helped us get the word out on who the Brothers are, and really supports us.”

For the foreseeable future, Pierre is focused on building a bigger platform for Patty Cakes. “For the past 10 years, I’ve been rebuilding and licking my wounds so I’m looking forward to really stepping into who I know myself to be and letting the world know Patrick and Patty Cakes,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of bumps and scrapes, and now I’m ready to, you know, conquer the world.”

The Kier Royale Treatment

The Kier Royale Treatment

 

Monster legend Udo Kier thrifts at all four of DAP Health’s Revivals stores 

 

Words by Kay Kudukis • Photo by Kelly Puleio

 

Udo Kier has had a monster career in more ways than one. His acting credits span six decades working with venerated and provocative filmmakers like Andy Warhol and Lars Von Trier. You might recall him in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” as Hans, the flamboyant lamp dancer, in a threesome with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. More recently, he’s got a six-episode arc on the Al Pacino led “Hunters” as Adolph Hitler, and a new movie, “My Neighbor, Adolph.” 

“I’ve played Adolph Hitler five times,” Kier says wryly. “My [inner] direction was always comedy. I think about Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Dictator’ when he kicks the world.”

Kier is used to playing monsters. In fact, he’s a cult film monster staple. He played the doctor in Andy Warhol’s “Flesh for Frankenstein,” and the lead in “Blood for Dracula,” from frequent Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey. He’s also portrayed Jack the Ripper and a slew of other unsavory characters.

When he’s not filming, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll run into Kier at one of the four Coachella Valley Revivals thrift stores. Unlike branded chain retailers, Revivals offers something entirely different at every outpost, whether it’s Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, or Indio. 

It’s not clothes Kier is seeking — although he does have a thing for vintage ties. No, the man is into art. It doesn’t have to be a famous artist, but it must speak to him. He has been spoken to a lot over the years. Hence his four shipping containers full of thrifted treasures. 

When asked why he thrifts, Kier’s answer is simple: “I love it.” But maybe that quartet of receptacles bursting with art and furniture finds have something to do with his past. 

On October 14, 1944, Operation Hurricane launched a 24-hour bombing campaign on Cologne, Germany. Explosives pounded the city — including the hospital where Kier’s mom was in labor with him — relentlessly. They survived, but barely. When it was over, Cologne, the city that had been built in 50 A.D., was in ruins. Things were so bad, Cardinal Josef Frings told his people “Thou shalt not steal” was temporarily on hold, encouraging them to take whatever they needed to survive. 

At 18, Kier moved to London to learn English. Now recovered from the Blitz — the eight-month, nonstop bombing by the Nazis — London was back to her jolly old self and swinging into the ’60s. Counterculture was so far out it was in. 

One day, in a coffee shop, Kier was approached by a man who asked him if he’d like to be in a film. Kier said, “I don’t know how to act.” The director replied, “I don’t care.” One screen test later, he was cast as the gigolo in “Road to Santa Fe,” directed by Michael Sarne of “Myra Breckinridge” fame. Since then, Kier has appeared in more than 220 movies.

His love of art is not limited to paintings and sculptures, but includes glassware, pottery, and architectural furniture, mainly midcentury modern. When Kier purchased his first home in Los Angeles, needing to furnish it, he did it all by thrifting. His first piece was a George Nelson chair, one of Herman Miller’s designers. 

On one thrilling thrifting adventure, Kier found a pair of chairs with metal slats for the back. Enter his prized vintage ties. He wove 11 of them into each chair as backing. If he gets bored with those, he swaps them out.

Unlike many thrifters, Kier isn’t in it for the resale value. He also doesn’t go thinking, “I need something for that wall.” No, he indulges strictly for the pleasure of finding something he would like to enjoy for longer than a glance. In fact, if a friend is over at his home (a repurposed 1965 Palm Springs library designed by John Porter Clark and starchitect Albert Frey) and admires one of his treasures, there’s a fairly good chance — if Kier’s done enjoying it — it’s going home with said friend. 

In 2021, Kier played the lead in writer-director Todd Stephens’ film “Swan Song.” The movie is based on the real, outrageous, and famously controversial Sandusky, Ohio hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger. In one scene, a thrift store owner tells Pat how much his life has impacted her own, and gifts him with a lime green leisure suit. Whether Stephens knew of Kier’s thrifting passion and generous nature is unknown. Either way, it’s a very nice little Easter egg for those on the hunt.

Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers

 

The Coming Out Experience at DAP Health is all about sharing stories and making connections

 

When it comes to gay men with experiences of coming out, Rob Thomas and Ron King had theirs at opposite ends of the age spectrum.

Thomas recalls he was 12, lying in his bed and wondering if he was bisexual. It wasn’t until he was 18 and having sex with his first male lover that he realized he wasn’t bi but gay — and that the coming out process was just beginning for him. 

King was 47 and married with two adult children when he decided to end his marriage and come out to himself and the world.

Thomas, now 53, and King, 71, have been a couple for 10 years and currently live together in Palm Springs. On occasion, they discuss different aspects of their coming out stories as part of the DAP Health Wellness Center’s weekly Zoom group called The Coming Out Experience. And as both point out, coming out isn’t a one-shot deal. “We keep touching on the fact that the coming out experience is very ongoing,” King says. “There are all sorts of little nuances.” Or as Thomas puts it, “You probably come out with everything you say as it relates to your sexuality in any everyday conversation.” 

Those nuances and everyday conversations likely dovetail with other aspects of a person’s sexuality, too. For Thomas and King, it could be their May/December relationship, “which many people don’t understand,” King claims. 

Thomas and King are also an interracial couple. And Thomas is on Social Security disability, having gone blind in 2005 from diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults. King is a retired special education teacher, a retired massage therapist, and also an interfaith minister who still officiates at weddings. He says he’s been a client of DAP Health since 2014 and a participant in the Wellness Center’s activities for years. 

Six months ago, Thomas started receiving dental services at DAP Health, which qualified him to engage in Wellness Center activities, too. Thomas notes that King found The Coming Out Experience beneficial and liked the other participants, which piqued Thomas’ curiosity. “I thought, well, why don’t I get involved in this and see what it’s about? So far, it’s been a good thing.”

Both Thomas and King give high marks to Wellness Center Career Development Specialist Steve Rossetti, who facilitates the group. Rossetti has an extensive history both as a therapist — specifically, a cognitive behavioral therapist — and as a director of employee training for two companies in Chicago. He began working at DAP Health in 2018 and started The Coming Out Experience in 2020. Rossetti himself came out as gay in 1991 at age 31.

Rossetti introduces group discussions with a set topic, then tries to drive the discussion with questions. Thomas notes that Rossetti invites group members to call or email him with related topics they wish to discuss. “This is your group. So, bring me what you want to talk about,” Thomas quotes Rossetti as saying.

In a separate interview, Rossetti reiterates King’s perspective that the coming out process is ongoing, offering new challenges as one ages. This is particularly true for those who have yet to learn how to live their authentic selves. Instead, Rossetti says, many can be classified as “situationally gay,” where they can be queer for some people like friends or family members, but not for others like colleagues or neighbors. 

Rossetti says this can lead to the “pause effect,” as one stops and considers how best to respond when someone asks if one is dating or in a relationship. “You pause and calculate. What do I disclose? Why is this person asking me? Is it safe? Do I feel comfortable disclosing I’m gay?”

According to Rossetti, this doesn’t mean you have to lead with, “Oh, hey, I’m gay.” But Rossetti says this often takes an acquired ability of “just being natural and transparent with who you are. The ability to know you’re living authentically.” 

Rossetti says The Coming Out Experience attracts four to 12 participants each week, mostly men in their 50s through 80s — an age range, he points out, that “just kind of evolved.” Nevertheless, Rossetti says the group is inclusive and that younger participants, as well as female, trans, and nonbinary members are welcome, too.

These groups, Thomas adds, “show that DAP Health stands by what it says in terms of treating the person holistically, looking at all parts, the mind and the body.” As for The Coming Out Experience, it’s like “informal group counseling, where you get together with people who have common experiences and learn from each other.”

The Coming Out Experience meets via Zoom on Thursdays from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. Those interested are encouraged to call Steve Rossetti at 760.322.6378, or to email him at [email protected].

He's Here

He’s Here

 

Chef, Restaurateur, And Community Leader Albert Gonzalez Has Come A Long Way To Give Back

 

Words by Daniel Hirsch • Photos by John Paschal

 

As a young person growing up in Indio, Albert Gonzalez didn’t think there were other gay people like him in the Coachella Valley. Much like to the desert itself, the intervening years have brought incredible transformation to Gonzalez’s life. He’s emerged as an essential leader in the region’s LGBTQ+ community. 

Along with his partner in business and life, Willie Rhine, Gonzalez co-owns Palm Springs’ Eight4Nine Restaurant & Lounge. A self-taught pastry chef, he now runs the kitchen. Eight4Nine has frequently hosted events for organizations such as DAP Health and the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert, given in-kind donations to numerous local charities, and even provided meal deliveries to first responders and older adults during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gonzalez and Rhine have also given back through philanthropy. They participate in DAP Health’s major donor program Partners for Life, are Angels at AIDS Assistance Program – Food Samaritans, and contribute to the Center as longtime Ocotillo members. Since 2019, Gonzalez has also been on the Center’s board of directors. To top it all off, he’s worked 100 volunteer hours at DAP Health’s Revivals Thrift Store, and been a frequent volunteer at the Palm Springs Animal Shelter.

Gonzalez’s personal philosophy of service is a simple one, described as “the conundrum where you have to give it away in order to keep it.”

Giving back to the communities he’s been a part of includes his community of origin. With Gonzalez’s involvement on its board, the Center has amped up its programing in the East Valley by offering new programs to LGBTQ+ young people. 

“He’s just got this incredibly kind, wonderful spirit,” says former Center Executive Director and CEO Rob Wheeler. “If we’re struggling with something, Albert is one of the first people we reach out to.”

For Gonzalez, his current abundance didn’t always seem likely. It meant detaching from his close-knit family of origin, getting sober, and teaching himself how to cook from a discount Betty Crocker cookbook. “Growing up here in the valley, I didn’t have an idea of where to go, what goals to have in life,” he says. “Today my life is very different, it’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

Breaking the Bubble

Gonzalez describes his upbringing in Indio in the 1980s and ’90s as “a bubble.” When the 43-year-old was young, his part of the East Valley hadn’t experienced the economic prosperity felt elsewhere. To Gonzalez, it was isolated and remote.

“I grew up very conservative,” he says. “Going to church basically alienated everybody around us.”

Gonzalez is the second eldest of four children of working-class parents — a landscaper and an office administrator — whose own parents immigrated to the city of Thermal from Mexico. Gonzalez’s folks broke off from the rest of the extended family when they left the Catholic church and became members of a born-again, Apostolic church.

From an early age, Gonzalez knew he was gay. As an active member in his conservative church, it tormented him even as he served as youth president and choir director. During pastors’ sermons declaring gay acts as sin, Gonzalez prayed that nobody would notice he was different. At school, some did notice, and he fended off bullying from a young age. “There’s always that sense of loneliness,” he says. “And then, given my background, that I grew up with the church, that only exacerbated it.”

It wasn’t until he was 20 that Gonzalez interacted with out gay people. Working as an office assistant at the Riverside County Department of Mental Health, he met his friend and future mentor Damon Jacobs, a psychotherapist and early PrEP proponent who has worked with DAP Health. When Jacobs invited him to a birthday party in Palm Springs, Gonzalez’s sheltered existence cracked open. 

“I felt at home,” Gonzalez says. “I felt that these are my people… Yet I never knew about it, just living 30 minutes away.”

Circle K to Cartier

With Jacobs’ help, Gonzalez moved out of his parents’ home and relocated to Palm Springs. To his surprise, his parents accepted his sexuality and choice to leave Indio, but that didn’t mean being out and independent came easy. “We are raised with that fear of sex,” he says. “We don’t get to experience it in a healthy way.” 

Drug use, alcohol abuse, and more than a few unhealthy romantic and sexual relationships consumed Gonzalez’s early 20s. At age 25, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and worked to get sober. (Gonzalez will celebrate 17 years of sobriety in
October 2023.)

Around this time, a chance encounter with Rhine forever altered his path. Gonzalez isn’t shy about sharing how and where they met: They locked eyes outside of a Circle K and went home together soon thereafter. This casual encounter blossomed into a romantic relationship that ultimately transformed into a committed life partnership. To mark their commitment, Gonzalez and Rhine bought each other Cartier bracelets; Gonzalez jokes that if he ever writes a memoir, it would be titled “From Circle K to Cartier.”

“The words that come to mind when I think of Albert: kind, passionate, stubborn, lovable,” says Rhine, adding: “Did I say stubborn?”

Rhine saw that stubbornness in action in the early days of their relationship. At the time, he was general manager of Lulu California Bistro. When Gonzalez, who was still working at the Department of Mental Health, expressed interest in restaurant work, Rhine hired him as maître d’. Working in restaurants ignited something in Gonzalez that came to full fruition when the couple went shopping at a gift shop one Sunday afternoon. That day, Gonzalez purchased the aforementioned Betty Crocker cookbook. 

Seeing Gonzalez pick up the cookbook, Rhine was initially dismissive. “My response was, ‘Why are you buying that? It’s a waste of money. You don’t bake. You’ll never use it,’” he recalls. But Gonzalez, whose only gastronomic experience was watching cooking shows on TV, insisted on buying it. From that first cookbook and more to come — plus a few classes at the Culinary Institute of America — Gonzalez taught himself to bake. Occasionally sharing cakes with friends turned into a full-fledged passion. His confections soon grew more and more refined. By the time Rhine opened Eight4Nine in 2015, Gonzalez had become the ideal pastry chef. 

Back to the East Valley

When the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert partnered with the nonprofit Alianza to open a youth center in the East Coachella Valley, both organizations knew their own leadership needed to reflect the largely Latino and immigrant communities they hoped to serve. As an emerging leader in the LGBTQ+ community — not to mention an Indio native — Gonzalez was an obvious choice to join the board.

“Albert is able to pull from his own experience growing up as a young person in Indio,” says Wheeler. “He helped us think about the right questions we should be asking when we were thinking about need, about what issues young people might be facing in the East Valley.”

Opened in 2016, the Center Eastern Coachella Valley is a youth-driven, LGBTQ+-affirming space situated in downtown Coachella. It hosts support groups, workshops, and social events as well as offers programing to local high schools that addresses youth mental health and uplifts queer people. It’s the kind of place that didn’t exist for Gonzalez when he was growing up in the area. But also, by being involved in its operation and showing up for its programming, Gonzalez has become the kind of person he never knew existed when he was young.

DAP Health Director of Brand Marketing and longtime friend Steven Henke describes Gonzalez as a “north star” for young people in the valley. “Anyone can look at the life he’s created and learn from it,” he says.

For Gonzalez, returning to his old home is both inspiring and daunting. “When I go back to Indio, there’s still that fear … the homophobia is still there,” he says. “Hopefully, through the Center, we can educate individuals that we are here … and we’re not evil, we’re not bad!”

Recently, Gonzalez had such a chance to educate. He joined Wheeler in the car parade of the 2021 East Coachella Valley Pride Festival — only the fifth year of its existence. Driving through the streets of Coachella, seeing all the rainbow flags and people cheering in support, it was clear his old home had changed — and so had he.

Play Like A Porn Star

Play like a porn star

 

Here’s everything you need to know to keep yourself — and your play partner(s) — safe and healthy

 

Words by Daniel Vaillancourt

 

“We believe that living your best life includes living your best sex life,” says DAP Health Director of Community Health and Sexual Wellness C.J. Tobe. “The medical professionals and support staff at our clinics in Palm Springs and Indio have therefore been specifically trained to fulfill all of your health care needs. 

“If you have any questions after reading the following articles, please know we’re here to answer them honestly — without judgment, stigma, or shame ever entering the equation. Because, if there’s one place you can talk openly about your most intimate concerns, it’s with us at
DAP Health.”

Dr. Carlton’s Tips for Tops and Bottoms

Named one of the Out 100 in 2022 for his cheekily frank sex-ed posts and vids that have been viewed millions of times, Dr. Carlton Thomas, 51, is a South Carolina-born, Mayo Clinic-educated gastroenterologist who today practices in San Diego, where he lives with his husband, Alex, and their twins, who are soon to be high school graduates. 

But the good doc — who’s been a bona fide Instagram influencer and TikTok star since 2020 — has a soft spot for the desert, having worked his first job out of med school here from 2004 to 2009. 

When Dr. Carlton participated in a vivid public forum about sexual wellness at DAP Health’s Pride Pavilion last November, attendees were as charmed as they were informed by his deep knowledge of all things related to butt (and overall) health. 

Below, please find pro advice from the man fast becoming the gay Dr. Ruth.

Tops

  • Tease your bottom prior to entering him. There are millions of nerve endings down there. Your fingers, tongue, and tip work well.
  • Let — and help — your bottom open up. Use the Butt Clock technique (learn it on Insta @doctorcarlton), and take it slowly at first, to avoid injury. No ramming. Ever.
  • Make sure your bottom finishes. And don’t pull out too fast. That could hurt him.
  • To avoid a urinary tract infection, pee when you’re done.

Bottoms

  • To control your top’s initial speed and depth of entry, start on top.
  • Don’t forget to breathe.
  • Push out a little as your top slides in.
  • Take your time, so you don’t tear.

For Both of You

  • Use lots of good lube (silicone is best), applying and reapplying generously.
  • Communicate by using eye contact for visual cues, and by talking and listening for verbal cues.
  • Change positions frequently to keep things exciting. Find the best option for both of you. 

If you’re new to bottoming, Dr. Carlton suggests using toys to learn how to open up and take it. “I recommend one that has a small tip and gets progressively wider, so you can go at your own pace,” he says. “There’s so much work — and an insane amount of pressure — that goes into preparing to bottom. A lot of guys are terrified they aren’t clean enough. But if you’re on a good, high-fiber diet, you should be able to flush out completely in about 15 to 20 minutes. Some guys tell me they’re in there for four or five hours. That’s overdoing it.”

Not that tops are completely stress-free. “There’s a lot of performance anxiety about getting and maintaining a strong erection,” says Dr. Carlton, adding that, thankfully, good meds are available for those challenged in that respect. “A lot of tops worry their penis isn’t big or thick enough. But a bottom’s G-spot is only a couple of inches in. You don’t have to be huge to hit it right.”

One last bit of wisdom: Inspect the goods before you play. “If something doesn’t look or smell right,” says Dr. Carlton, “just politely step away with, ‘I don’t think this is gonna work out today. Let’s try another time.’”

For more expert counsel on countless topics, follow Dr. Carlton on Instagram and TikTok  @doctorcarlton.

Daddy Knows Best

ANDY CLEMENTS (AKA ADULT FILM PERFORMER DREW SEBASTIAN) WANTS YOU TO DO AS HE DOES AND MAINTAIN YOUR — AND YOUR PARTNERS’ — SEXUAL HEALTH

In 1990, when 15-year-old Andy Clements saw his first nudes in a gay male magazine — was it Honcho, Inches, Mandate? — he not only knew he liked what he saw, he realized he wanted to be in those pages, too. It would, however, take 20 years for this handsome and charming Knoxville, Tennessee native to turn his dream into reality thanks to his alter ego, who performs under the nom de porn Drew Sebastian. But more on that in a bit.

Clements, who’d figured out his queerness as a young boy, showed an early penchant for musical theatre. He therefore took private singing lessons as a teen before going on to study classical voice in college. Performing in Vegas and at theme parks post-graduation led him to Houston, where — bored with survival office jobs — he began escorting and go-go dancing. When he first visited San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, at age 35 in 2010, Clements contacted a few studios to explore having sex on camera.

By then, he was enrolled in the prestigious culinary and hospitality school Le Cordon Bleu. After that graduation, he reinvented himself as a celebrity chef, creating healthy cuisine for the likes of Adam Levine, Jordana Brewster, and Charlie Puth, among many others who must remain nameless due to non-disclosure agreements. 

All the while, Clements continued to dabble in sex work off and on until his adult film career inexplicably exploded in 2015, when he was 40. The late bloomer has since made up for lost time, winning twin 2022 Grabby Awards as both Performer of the Year and Hottest Daddy, and also co-starring in the winner of the Best Feature category at the 2023 Gay Video Network Awards (GayVNs).

If there’s a theme to the life led today by Clements — who moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding sobriety in the desert in the process — it’s health. He now not only works as a personal fitness trainer at local gym Training & Discipline on East Tahquitz Canyon Way, but is authoring a cookbook for those who wish to eat well, and is even writing a cabaret act he’ll perform some time in the near future.

This commitment to wellness extends to keeping his co-stars, as well as his boyfriend in Italy, safe from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by testing fully and often. “Because I’m so sexually active, I like to test every three months,” he says. “But there are times I feel I need to test more often, so I do.”

Regardless of the frequency, Clements always undergoes what’s known as three-site testing, which involves bloodwork for HIV and syphilis as well as a urine samples, plus throat and rectal swabs, to detect the presence of gonorrhea and chlamydia.

“Three-site testing is important because different bacteria can be in different locations and a single test does not diagnose all areas,” says DAP Health Nurse Practitioner and Clinical Supervisor of Sexual Wellness Trent Broadus. “For example, a urine specimen doesn’t let us know about infection in the throat or rectum, and one could potentially have chlamydia in the former and gonorrhea in the latter. Many people are asymptomatic, so we highly encourage testing all three sites at each visit.”

Broadus further explains that gonorrhea and chlamydia have an incubation period of approximately three days, while syphilis can take longer — 10 to 21 days — to show up on a test. “That’s why getting a syphilis test as a baseline is so important,” he says. 

Clements, who visits various testing facilities depending on where he is around the country or throughout the world, does use DAP Health’s Orange Clinic (where all HIV and STI testing is always free for everyone) when he’s in town. “The whole point is to try to stay on top of it as best you can,” he says, “so you can protect not only yourself, but your partners.” 

Follow Clements at his pro Twitter and Instagram handles, @DrewSebastianX.

PrEP and PEP 101: Because Prevention Is Priceless

A LOT HAS HAPPENED SINCE THE ADVENT OF PREP FOR HIV MORE THAN 10 YEARS AGO

What is PrEP?

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is different medications that can lower your chances of getting HIV and certain other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

PrEP for HIV Prevention

Administered orally via one pill daily — or by a single injection every two months — PrEP can reduce your risk of contracting HIV. Before starting PrEP, you’ll need to get tested for HIV, STIs, kidney function, and Hepatitis B and C. Please note it takes at least one week on PrEP before you are protected for anal sex, and three weeks for vaginal sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), when taken as prescribed, PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection from sexual activity by
more than 99%, and by at least 74% for those who use
intravenous drugs.

PrEP for STI Prevention

Most commonly referred to as Doxy PrEP, doxycycline can be used to lower your chances of becoming infected with chlamydia or syphilis. Some studies also show effectiveness in preventing gonorrhea. Dosage is one 100mg tablet taken
once daily. 

Your PrEP Navigator at DAP Health

If you’re interested in PrEP, contact PrEP Navigators at DAP Health. You can also talk to any nurse or nurse practitioner during your visit if you want to discuss which PrEP may be right for you. If you don’t have health care insurance, or if you need financial assistance, a PrEP navigator can also explain your options, help you get access, and answer questions about finding a doctor or working with your pharmacy.

Follow-up Visits

All PrEP options require follow-up appointments with clinical staff for STI testing and medication refills every two (injectable PrEP) or three (oral PrEP) months.

What is PEP?

PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is different medications — taken ideally within 24 hours (but no later than 72 hours) after condomless sex where bodily fluid may have been exchanged — that can help prevent infection from HIV and certain other STIs in someone who is not on PrEP or Doxy PrEP.

PEP for HIV Prevention

This form of PEP is a combination of three drugs taken once or twice a day for 30 days: tenofovir and emtricitabine (two meds in one tablet) and either raltegravir or dolutegravir. 

PEP for STI Prevention

For prevention of chlamydia, syphilis, and possibly gonorrhea, this form of PEP (also known as Doxy PEP or dPEP) is a one-time dose of two 100mg tablets of doxycycline taken within 72 hours of an exposure.

What Should You Do if Possibly Exposed?

When condomless sex has occurred, and there has been possible exposure to HIV and/or to an STI, do one of these three things ASAP:

  • Contact your health care provider.
  • Go to the emergency room or urgent care.
  • Contact a DAP Health PrEP navigator at 760.656.8400.

What You Should Expect at Your Initial PEP Visit at DAP Health

A complete STI screening — including bloodwork, plus throat and rectal swabs — will be completed by a nurse. A clinician will then assess you, and if appropriate, prescribe PEP medication(s). A follow-up visit (for another complete STI screening 30 days after your initial visit, to confirm the absence of HIV and/or STIs) will be scheduled. 

Free Follow-up Visits and Testing

All PrEP and PEP visits and lab work done at DAP Health’s sexual wellness clinics in Palm Springs and Indio are always free of charge for all patients.

So, You Want to Open Your Relationship…

NAVIGATING NON-MONOGAMY TAKES LOVE, PATIENCE, TRUST, RESPECT, HONESTY, AND — MOST IMPORTANTLY —A SET OF MUTUALLY AGREED UPON RULES

One thing fans love most about Dr. Carlton Thomas is his willingness to answer anonymous questions and give advice through social media. “One of the most frequent ones I get is, ‘My husband is really vanilla and plain and doesn’t have a very big sex drive. I’m a big pig who wants this and that, and I don’t know how to tell him,’” Carlton confides. “It’s important to remember that, when it comes to our relationships in the gay world, we don’t have to follow heteronormative rules of how things go. There doesn’t have to be pure monogamy. You can work that out between the two parties. I think being open-minded — and separating sex and love — is important. Also, being willing to compromise. Some people who are tentative about non-monogamy can ease into it by only playing with others together, at least at first. Frequent reassurance and communication are key.”

Certainly, an open relationship isn’t for every couple, but if two committed people want to explore non-monogamy, mutually agreed upon rules that will govern the arrangement are the best place to start.

Because being open requires a strong degree of love, honest communication, trust, and respect, it’s advisable that two people form a strong, monogamous bond before venturing out. And it must be said: Early in a romantic relationship, non-monogamy usually isn’t an issue. Most people have no desire to have sex with someone other than their primary partner.

But if you’re both ready to test the waters of nonexclusivity in the bedroom, some of the questions you may want to consider when setting the boundaries for sexual activity outside your primary relationship include:

Who?

  • Anyone
  • Anonymous only
  • Only us and a third
  • No friends
  • No mutual friends
  • No repeats
  • Regular play buddies OK
  • Coupled guys only (no singles)

Are we HIV-friendly?

What?

  • Watching/showing off only
  • Mutual JO only
  • Oral OK
  • Anal OK (Top? Bottom? Either?)
  • Kissing OK
  • Threesomes
  • Condoms only
  • Just sex — no dates
  • What about overnights?

When?

  • Any time
  • Only when one of us is out of town
  • Only when one of us is at work/not at home
  • Only when it doesn’t conflict with together time
  • Only when we both agree it’s allowed
  • Only when we’re together (in a bathhouse or sex club, in a threesome)

Where?

  • Anywhere
  • Only in public (rest room, bathhouse, gym steam room, park)
  • Only at their place
  • Never at their place
  • Only at home
  • Never at home
  • Never in our bed
  • Only in our bed

In conclusion, perhaps the important rule is this: If one of you breaks a rule, that person must reveal it. From there, both partners agree to discuss the matter — with neither blame nor anger — so that a deeper understanding of the situation can be reached. If you both feel you need couples counseling, go for it. The bottom line (no pun intended) is this: Your primary relationship (and the love, honest communication, trust, and respect inherent in it) matters most. Don’t lie. Don’t hide. That’s cheating — and cheating is the last thing an open relationship is all about. 

Don’t Be Lax on Your Vax

INOCULATION ISN’T JUST ALL ABOUT COVID-19 BOOSTERS AND MPOX JABS. HERE’S A LIST OF MUST-HAVE VACCINATIONS FOR THE SEXUALLY ACTIVE

More than three years into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — and as the world celebrates the victory over the mpox resurgence — all of us surely know there exist vaccinations and boosters for those two maladies, both of which are especially contagious when humans find themselves in close quarters. But here’s a reminder that there are a few more inoculations appropriate for anyone with a dating pool bigger than a
shot glass.

Influenza

No matter the stated effectiveness of the annual fall flu shot — or whether you believe in its ability to thwart off disease at all — while you’re at it, why not give it a shot (pun entirely intended).

Hepatitis A and B

Hep A is commonly contracted via anal/oral contact, or by ingesting contaminated food or water. Hep B, like HIV, is passed on through blood. Both cause liver disease that can quickly become complicated, leading to liver failure and/or cancer. 

Human Papillomavirus

HPV is actually the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and can not only cause genital warts, but rectal and cervical cancer, and possibly even cancer of the throat and pharynx. Best administered before one is ever sexually active, its vaccine nonetheless does offer protection even following exposure to the virus.

Meningitis

Meningitis can be a life-threatening viral, bacterial, or fungal infection of the brain, spinal cord, and cerebrospinal fluid. But thankfully, there’s a vax for that!

Shingles

The CDC recommends adults 50 years and older get the shingles vaccine to prevent the illness and its complications, which include a seriously painful rash.

“I hope that, having recently been poked in the arm on more occasions than they ever have in their entire life, people have truly come to understand and appreciate the value of vaccines,” says DAP Health Nurse Practitioner and Clinical Supervisor of Sexual Wellness Trent Broadus. “Get them. They work!”

Please note that, while DAP Health does not offer vaccinations in either of its sexual wellness clinics in Palm Springs or Indio, those who receive primary care here may be able to access inoculations through their provider. If you’re not yet a patient of DAP Health, talk to your doctor about how to schedule, and stay up on, these important vaccines.

Safer Drug Use Saves Lives

Safer Drug Use Saves Lives

 

Improving Fentanyl Overdose Outcomes Is Just One Facet Of DAP Health’s New Harm Reduction Program

 

Words by Jim Macak

 

Tom (not his real name) is a tall, thin, handsomely weathered 67-year-old Maui native raised in Long Beach. He’s been HIV-positive for 17 years, unhoused in Palm Springs for 12, and a moderate crystal meth user for 10. 

He discovered DAP Health’s Harm Reduction Program about a year ago, thanks to his daily attendance at Well in the Desert’s hot meal service. DAP Health’s team — Community Health Harm Reduction Supervisor Neil Gussardo, Educator Bree Clark-Pharr, and longtime volunteer Suzanne Petersen — shows up twice a week at this location. Tom recalls that, without any reservation, he jumped at the chance to benefit from their provision of clean bubble bowls, which are the part of glass pipes where methamphetamine is heated.

“They’re completely compassionate,” Tom says of Gussardo, Clark-Pharr, and Petersen. “They’re sensitive to your needs. They want you to have the safest equipment for your drug use. They’re very supportive without ever pushing recovery on you.” In fact, he recommends the program to all his unhoused friends who use drugs.

Gussardo is no newcomer to serving people experiencing substance use disorder. He has worked in the field for more than 20 years, beginning his career in San Francisco, then transitioning to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. He has been with DAP Health since February 2022, and explains that the Harm Reduction Program has two priorities. The first is to provide equipment that will reduce the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C, and other illnesses. 

Specifically, the program provides fresh syringes, gift cards as an incentive for those who bring in used syringes, alcohol swabs and cotton filters for injections, test strips to determine if a more dangerous synthetic opioid like fentanyl is mixed in with other drugs, cookers to help convert drugs in solid form to liquid, and clean pipes, glass bubble bowls, pipe extensions, and foil used in smoking opiates.

The second priority, Gussardo says, is to distribute opioid overdose treatments proven effective, such as injectable naloxone and the nasal spray Narcan (recently approved for over-the-counter sales by the FDA, and likely available by late summer). Persons who overdose cannot typically self-administer such aids, so the products are provided to fellow users who can come to the rescue should need be. Proper training for administering overdose therapy is provided as well.

The reaction to this program has been positive. But occasional negative comments are not uncommon from passersby who learn what services Gussardo and his colleagues supply. “We absolutely encounter folks who think we’re enabling drug use rather than reducing the risk of harm,” he says, adding that by diminishing disease transmission, the program is saving society a considerable amount of money and time spent treating people infected with HIV or hep C. “We’re helping alleviate a drain on the system, person by person.”

More importantly, according to Gussardo, “It’s been reported to us from our participants that they’ve used either naloxone or Narcan provided by DAP Health to reverse 104 overdoses from September through January. That’s 104 lives saved.” 

The Harm Reduction Program took root in the middle of 2022, at a time when overdoses from fentanyl had become an epidemic throughout the country. The drug is a legally prescribed painkiller, but in the last 10 years it has become a widely used street drug that’s up to 50 times stronger than heroine and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency which, according to the CDC, makes substances cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and much more dangerous. The number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl, the CDC reports, shot up from 1,615 in 2012 to more than 71,000 in 2021.

According to the California Department of Public Health, there were 408 overdose deaths involving fentanyl in 2021 in Riverside County. Statistics on confirmed overdose deaths for 2022 are not yet available. Sheriff Chad Bianco told City News Service last October that the rate of fentanyl poisonings is soaring, and that the number of confirmed deaths “is going to increase significantly.” 

The majority of participants in DAP Health’s Harm Reduction Program, Gussardo says, are unhoused. Twice a week, his team drives its van to churches on the western end of the Coachella Valley, linking arms with the aforementioned Well in the Desert, a nonprofit that provides hot meals five days a week for working poor, persons without homes, and others. 

When Gussardo, Clark-Pharr, and Petersen aren’t with Well in the Desert, they look for encampments. And if people at these locations are interested, the team works with them, too.

“We’re not doing counseling,” maintains Gussardo, “but we do see people on a repeat basis. Sometimes we see the same person twice a week. And we’re building a rapport with them, building trust, and providing referrals for additional services.”

Gussardo reveals the Harm Reduction Program has started reaching out to another group he refers to as “the party and play crowd” — gay men who, in sexual situations, occasionally use crystal meth, and who “potentially share syringes” — by establishing a Thursday evening presence on Palm Springs’ Arenas Road, where a number of gay bars are located. While still in its infancy, that initiative is slowly but surely building a clientele. 

Next steps, Gussardo says, will include strategically based vending machines allowing for 24-hour access to complimentary safer-use materials such as Narcan and clean paraphernalia.

One theme Gussardo stresses in terms of harm reduction generally is how much of the population stigmatizes those who use drugs. Based on his experience in talking with those who use, he says that when these people reach out for help, they’re often met “with all the stigma of addiction. They’re met with people who don’t treat them as human beings, which then becomes a barrier to any kind of treatment.”

Part of the solution, Gussardo maintains, would be to reference “a person who uses drugs” as simply that, or as a person with a substance use disorder — rather than as a drug addict. This is part of a “people first” use of language to reduce the impact of stigma that Gussardo and other Harm Reduction team members emphasize.

Does this approach really work? According to Tom, it definitely does.

Anyone interested in receiving clean supplies is encouraged to visit DAP Health’s Harm Reduction team in the field.
Call 760.323.2118, Extension 504, to inquire about schedules and locations.