“Gifted”: When HIV Was a Death Sentence, and Worth It to Get Housing

    In the early 1990s, there was a joke people would make about HIV transmission. “AIDS: The gift that keeps on giving!”

    It was a reference to how once someone gave the virus to you, you could give it to any number of people. But for lot of us living with AIDS, as we called it at the time, the riff on that joke was “gifting”: transmitting the virus on purpose, to improve the recipient’s overall quality of life.

    Gifting was consensual. No one ever knew anyone who’d given HIV to someone else this way, because that part wasn’t talked about. Though it was rarely prosecuted, at that time exposing someone to the virus in Washington State was a felony punishable by life in prison; it was downgraded to a misdemeanor in 2020. But everyone knew at least one or two people who’d received the gift of HIV. Because the gift wasn’t really HIV; the gift was housing.

    I learned I’d tested positive in a shelter in 1992, when I was 18. I hadn’t sought HIV intentionally, but I understand why people did. For a lot of us living on the streets, it was the only way to get housing.

    Within days of learning my status, the health department enrolled me in government assistance programs that included a monthly check I could use for rent and living expenses. I think it was something like $800. One night I was sleeping in a train access tunnel, the next I had an apartment. It was surreal. I moved a friend in with me, and when other friends of ours needed a place to crash, now they had one.

    Only one of them had to get HIV to get housing, but once one of them had housing, they all did.

    Testing positive opened the door for all kinds of state assistance you never could have accessed otherwise. Caseworkers and other people I’d never seen before showed up with toilet paper and filled my cupboards with food. Within the month, food stamps showed up in the mail. At some point I was even given $500 to buy a car. It was crap, but it ran.

    Before I had state assistance, there was no point in going to the emergency department even if I was on fire. That changed after my medical coupons arrived. They covered my AZT and other medications, but once you were HIV-positive the health department really wanted you to have health care, so they covered all kinds of other stuff too. For the three years between when I got my diagnosis and when I went into the prison system, anytime I got shot, stabbed, had pneumonia, needed a dentist, I could just show up with a coupon and a doctor would see me. I even found a chiropractor who accepted the coupons. The state assistance cut off whenever I was in jail, but whenever I got out I could re-enroll.

    I knew a handful of people who contracted the virus by choice. They tended to have a close circle of friends who had talked it over and decided who was going to do it. My friend Leah was gifted HIV that way. It wasn’t like she got the short straw—she wanted to do it for her friends. Because one of them had to test positive to get the housing assistance, but once one of them had housing, they all did. 



    By the time I was diagnosed, I had been living on the streets for about four years. It was a safer, better life than the state institutions I’d fled before that, but it was still dangerous.

    Having no place to lie down without getting harassed by cops was the worst. Nowhere to leave a few belongings. In my early teens I got by doing sex work, and hustling like that you can’t be carrying your things with you. Like the rest of the street kids making a living the same way, we only had the clothes we wore. Usually johns would offer a burger or something. A lot of them would also let you stay the night and wash your clothes, and they were almost always the violent ones. But it was worth it—wherever you spent the night, someone was going to beat you, and it wouldn’t come with clean clothes and a bed and a few hours away from cops unless it happened inside a home.

    It was a life all of us had chosen because we’d left behind something worse, usually something where our choices were made for us. There was freedom in living on the streets, but at the same time there weren’t a lot of ways out. Around age 16 I stopped doing sex work when I was able to start selling meth, but that was still exhausting and dangerous, just in a different way. So when someone chose gifting, not just for their own sake but for their friends as well, I understood.

    Even though the state assistance got you more than just housing, the housing was the only thing that really mattered.

    Gifting never went anywhere. The practice is still used. Modern antiretroviral medication means contracting the virus is no longer the death sentence it was 30 years ago, but even back then gifting wasn’t thought of as choosing to die. It was a sacrifice, but no one figured they were going to survive longer than a few more years on the streets anyway. AIDS was a horrific death. Living without housing was so miserable that the tradeoff was worth it.

    Even though the state assistance got you more than just housing, the housing was the only thing that really mattered. It was the reason all the other things could fall into place. You can get food stamps and medical coupons in the mail because you have a mailing address. You can have a change of clean clothes because you have somewhere to leave them. Once you can use drugs in private rather than in public, you run into cops a lot less. Once you have a safe place to sleep, you use a lot less drugs.

    Leah died in the late ’90s, of AIDS-related complications. Whenever the person getting the rental assistance was gone, their friends had to clear out of the apartment too. But sometimes people would have gotten their feet under them enough to find something else, to have saved up some money or found a job.

    Sex work, drug use, drug selling, shoplifting and any other criminalized activity tends to decrease naturally once someone has housing. One girl who’d lived with Leah enrolled in a beauty school she’d walked past every day, once she had a place to sleep and shower and think about the future. The gift that keeps on giving.



    Top and inset images via National Library of Medicine

    • Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He’s incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he’s a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

    • Show Comments

    You May Also Like