Unhoused in York: The daily struggle of being homeless and HIV-positive

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

EDITORS NOTE: York County is home to at least 300 unsheltered people, according to the most recent point-in-time count, although experts say that estimate likely reflects an undercount because of the transient nature of life on the streets. There's no one single type of homelessness, just as the unhoused don't easily fit popular stereotypes about them. Over the span of more than six months, reporter Meredith Willse and photographer Daniella Heminghaus reported on our region's unhoused population. This week, they will tell the stories of three people they followed over the course of their reporting.

Josh Brown can’t think about jalapeño peppers without thinking about his childhood.

One night when he and his brother were still young, they were awakened by one of his guardians and forced to stand for an hour in the kitchen with peppers on their tongues. They couldn’t eat them or spit them out.

“What kid deserves to do that for an hour?” the 25-year-old said, sitting in the blue room at Union Evangelical Lutheran Church, a hub for York County’s unhoused population to eat, charge their phones and socialize. “No kid!”

As an adult, he still doesn’t know what the punishment was for. His mother’s boyfriends were often unsparing in their abuse, he said, with no logic behind their actions.

Brown, who goes by Jayme, gets animated when telling this part of his story. He enjoys talking and will go on for hours if no one stops him. But he talks about his childhood — and just about everything else — with a sense of humor.

“I know, it’s dark,” he said. “It’s gritty. It’s me.”

Jayme's tent set up in the woods in York on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

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Difficult diagnosis: The trauma stayed with Brown, even after he moved away from his childhood home, briefly got engaged and, nearly two years ago, was diagnosed with HIV. As Brown tells it, so much of his life feels like he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Like so many unhoused people living with HIV, the disease complicates an already fraught life as he traverses the city to meet with medical providers and secure a steady supply of life-saving medications — all in addition to the daily struggles of finding food and shelter.

"How do you tell a 23-year-old he has AIDS?" Brown said, with a chuckle, when recalled the surreal experience of learning that he was HIV-positive — and that his illness had progressed significantly.

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'It is what it is': There was something seriously wrong.

An infection grew in his foot, causing his ankle to swell to the size of a baseball. He couldn't walk on it for two or three weeks, and the pain kept building each day. Brown said he wanted to ignore it like “a typical man.”

The pain got so bad that, one day, his mother took him to the hospital. After a battery of tests, at 10 p.m., one of the doctors came to him with the news. He braced himself for the worst.

“It is what it is,” Brown recalled telling his doctor.

Jayme sitting in the square on George St. in York on Aug.30, 2022. 
This was the night he had been kicked out of the house he had stayed at.

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Brown’s thoughts immediately turned to the cause but, even today, he’s not completely sure. Many strangers assume he’s gay or a heroin addict, but Brown said neither is true. Nor has he cheated on the women he’s dated. So far, his ex-fiancée hasn’t tested positive with HIV. His best guess is that his infection came from a tattoo needle.

Since then, "It is what it is" has kind of become Brown's motto.

"Dying is easy," he said. “But coming back is very hard.”

Health struggles: At 24, he suffered through symptoms he’d never dealt with before. His legs would suddenly give out from under him without warning. One minute, he would be standing. The next, he’d be on the ground.

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He’d suffer routine fevers and find himself out of breath.

The medication bills were daunting, with a single refill costing $200.

"That's why we had to get the Medicaid," he said. 

Medicaid was a battle by itself because of all the frustrating paperwork. Brown felt it took too long for someone who had so little income. 

"My body could not physically allow me to work," he said, explaining he was so sick he couldn’t get a job — the way 52% of Pennsylvanians get insurance, according to U.S. Census data.

Jayme outside the Coffee Spot in York on July 1, 2022.

Kicked out: Once he was insured and receiving stable medical treatment, Brown said his life appeared to take a more positive turn. That’s when his mother kicked him out of the house in a spat over his use of the kitchen. She could not be reached for comment.

Ultimately, Brown ended up on the streets in between a brief stint staying at the local men’s shelter at LifePath Christian Ministries and staying in a bed-bug infested apartment shared with others who live with insecure housing. He worked minimum wage jobs in the service industry — most recently at Burger King — to support himself.

Brown, fed up with neglectful landlords, said he received a tent from a nonprofit, Friends & Neighbors of Pennsylvania, that works with the unsheltered. For several months, he set it up near Codorus Creek with bricks weighing down the corners against the wind.

“It doesn’t block out the cold,” he said. “It just protects you against rain, snow, that stuff.”

'Humble abode': As he showed off his sleeping place, he described it as his “humble abode.”

York County’s homeless are forced to be sneaky with their sleeping places, he said, because the authorities often roust them and hand out tickets. There doesn’t seem to be any safe place to simply exist.

Jayme's tent set up in the woods in York on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

Most recently, as temperatures dropped, he found another short-term housing situation with a roof overhead. It seems to be working out, he said — at least for now.

Throughout all of this, Brown faithfully took his eight pills daily to fight the infections that come along with HIV and to stay in recovery.

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'I'm not radioactive': The 25-year-old has noticed how little people in his world seem to know about about HIV. He’s often had the experience of people back away from him when he opens up about his diagnosis.

"Which is completely ignorant," Brown said. "I'm not radioactive."

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is spread via sexual contact as well as through exposure to infected blood and blood products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not typically spread through simple proximity to an HIV-positive person, via sweat or saliva, or even closer contact, such as hugging, shaking hands or closed-mouth kissing.

There is no cure or vaccine for HIV, Brown said, but it is treatable — even if it makes his life more complicated and contributes to his own financial woes.

He added: "I would not wish this disease on anyone."