Plugged In

By Neal Broverman

Originally published on Advocate.com November 18 2010 4:00 AM ET

 Many people call themselves survivors, but Kengi Carr is the real deal. The 41-year-old has lived through life on the streets, sickle-cell anemia, kidney cancer (now in remission), and now HIV. Through it all, Carr’s altruistic spirit remained as strong as his will to live. He’s launched two groups -- Do Something Saturday and Unpluggin HIV -- to help others in his situation embrace their inner Gloria Gaynor.

What’s the goal of Unpluggin HIV?
I started Unpluggin HIV on April 3 of last year, which was the one-year anniversary of me testing positive for HIV. Its mission is to support people battling low-income life, homelessness, and HIV. So I do that on Los Angeles’s skid row at a site that houses 40 HIV-positive residents. It’s anything from getting them hygiene products to gently used clothes; if they need someone to talk to, they can call me.

Where does funding come from?
I have a core group of people who supported me through my 29 months of homelessness.

How did you become homeless?
I lost my job and was taking care of a family member.

What was scarier: losing your home or testing positive?
Losing my home. When HIV came, I already knew I was positive because I was sort of seeing someone who had lied about their status. For me, HIV is totally different from homelessness. I have sickle-cell anemia, so I’ve been fighting my entire life. I’d already battled cancer and was battling homelessness. I remember the first thing I said to my doctor: “How will I be able to continue my work?” I wasn’t worried I was going to die, because dying wasn’t an option for me. I was worried about the HIV because I was homeless and the services we think are there for people who are low-income or homeless are just not there.

Have we gotten to a point where people just accept HIV status as a character trait, like race or gender?
No. Most people automatically assume I was out being promiscuous. One thing I can say about being homeless and HIV-positive is that it’s forced me to always believe in myself and not give up. No matter how much I feel the world is stacked against me, if I believe in me and keep moving forward, things will move forward. That’s what I try to do with my outreach -- I remind people you may be in this situation, but you are still here, your life is still here, you are still valuable.

How difficult is it for people on the streets to get medications and health care?
When you’re homeless, your main concern is housing. So there were times I had to make a choice: Am I going to see my cancer team, or am I going to line up for housing? You have to make those choices every day. You can’t do it all. There is nothing to help you navigate it all. There were times I made the choice to get housing, which meant I had to make the choice of which trash can I was going to eat out of.