Creating Home For People Who Live With AIDS With AM-A Decade of AIDS, Bjt
LISA LEVITT RYCKMAN
Jun. 01, 1991
SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Don Spigarolo works the earth in a place between the sun and the grave, planting vegetables with a gardener's hope they will grow and a survivor's belief he will live to harvest them.
Spigarolo spent four hours one Sunday chopping through sod to clear a plot under the eaves of Truax House, a haven on a hill for people who have AIDS or AIDS-related complex and no home.
Fertilize, turn the soil, fertilize again, water and plant. He learned the rhythm of the garden at his boyhood home in Connecticut, years before heroin and the AIDS virus changed his life. Gardening is in his blood, too.
''I've got to have my tomatoes and corn,'' he said. ''We're going to have some killer tomatoes.''
He'll share the crop with the people who eat family style at the big dining room table in this rambling house trimmed in blue and flooded with light. There is room for 11, people homeless before they developed AIDS or because of it.
There are places like this in many cities across the nation, and there will have to be many more in the future. People are living longer now even after AIDS has disabled them, after they have lost their jobs and their homes.
At Truax, most stay for a few months, regain a sense of order in their lives and move on. Some are hospitalized and never come out. Four have died in the house since it opened in 1988. Others leave because they simply cannot follow the rules.
No drugs or alcohol. In by the 11 p.m. curfew. Pick up after yourself, and do your assigned chores. Attend the house meeting every Tuesday without fail.
Erma Roberts runs the house, plans the menu, does the shopping. A big woman with a heart and laugh to match, she admits she fusses over the residents: ''This one guy, he was almost as old as I am, 57, and he wrote me this letter with 'Mama Erma' right on the envelope.''
She walks through the house, pointing proudly to a row of animals fashioned from shells by former residents. The youngest current resident, who Roberts affectionately refers to as ''my 19-year-old,'' sits on the living room couch watching television. He likes loud music, which bothers some of the others, she confides. It's the kind of thing they work out on Tuesdays.
There's serenity here, a very deliberate peace. Stress exacerbates AIDS, so the household hums in the lowest key. And it feels like a happy home, even though residents are strangers living communally.
Four people share two private bedrooms; seven others sleep in a dorm-style room furnished with daybeds covered in bright flowered spreads. Each person has two drawers. Shelves hold personal effects, books and knickknacks; lockers secure medications, AZT and Bactrim.
''This is one of the things I get on them about,'' Roberts said, pointing to an unmade bed. She encourages the residents to get up in the morning, take a shower, do their chores, get on with life. ''It helps them mentally to be involved.''
Certain people cannot handle the involvement. Those who have lived on the streets may find the comforts of home intolerable. One man told her, ''I'll just go back to sleeping in my car.''
Others chafe at the curfew and lack of privacy, the loss of control. Bill Sturgell stayed at Truax twice after his ARC diagnosis four years ago, most recently last winter, when he found he had run out of friends and had to sleep on the street. He prepared recently to move out and share an apartment, but he knows there's no guarantee he'll make it.
''I'm going to give it a shot,'' he said. ''There's a certain independence we all need. You live in this environment, you've got someone making all your decisions for you.''
The 49-year-old former military cop met his best friend at Truax, but he tried to keep his distance from the younger men who sought him out for advice. ''It's hard to give of yourself so completely when you're draining yourself just to maintain,'' he said. ''You don't want to get too close.''
Spigarolo found the love of his life in a syringe 20 years ago. He used to share needles with his best friend, and then he heard his best friend had died of AIDS.
He never gave it a second thought, until the day 15 months ago when the HIV test at the drug treatment center came back positive. Now he is diagnosed with ARC. ''I was into denial with the big D,'' Spigarolo said.
He suffered a massive stroke in February and emerged from the hospital two months later with no place to go. The Veterans Administration sent him to the San Diego AIDS Foundation, which sent him to Truax, where he's the only heterosexual among eight men.
''I just accept them for who they are, and that's it. It's OK,'' he said. ''I'll probably stay through the summer,'' through the harvest.
A plane passes so low that it drowns out the sounds of the house and casts a winged shadow on Spigarolo's garden and the sunny upstairs porch, which commands a view of the ocean and airport.
''A person can come out here and just kind of sit,'' Erma Roberts said. ''We can dream, go places as the planes take off, or get on a ship and sail the seas. It's a very good place for people with AIDS, who can't spare any time.
''There's a beautiful sunset from here,'' she said. ''The sunset is just so, so beautiful.''