Over a long career, Chuck Christen, currently executive director of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force (PATF) has managed research on environmental and community health topics from river water stewardship to air quality. But the heart of his mission, professionally and spiritually, is compassion and effective care for HIV-positive men, women, and youth in the region.
Christen received his DrPh from Pitt Public Health in 2010 and sees his current role as an extension of that training. "For HIV, prevention is treatment. If we can find the people who are HIV positive and do not know it—by approaching health clinics, physician practices, and emergency rooms, as well as expanding HIV testing to marginalized populations—and if we can find those others who know they’re positive and connect and maintain these individuals in treatment, we can reduce their viral loads and decrease the spread of the disease."
In 2011, Christen traded his post at Pitt Public Health, where he had directed operations at the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, for the top job at PATF, the region’s largest and oldest AIDS service organization. With 25 employees and a $2.5 million annual budget, the task force is focused on one key HIV message: Find it, treat it, and beat it.
That initiative has led PATF beyond the usual clinic locations to places where clients may live: in jail or, often, on the street. Through outreach to the Allegheny County Jail and work with Operation Safety Net, providing medical services to the homeless, PATF connects individuals to HIV testing, medication, and social services. Operating a popular food pantry, finding affordable housing, and even driving clients to medical appointments are natural extensions of its mission.
"There’s a real gap in care for folks, especially those who are severely mentally ill or have active addictions," Christen explains. "They sometimes have problems accessing traditional care facilities. Their lives are fairly chaotic, and they are often chronically homeless. We believe that housing aids in treatment. Often, care means taking a person by the hand to negotiate daily living."
Christen honed his hands-on approach over five years as a chaplain at Allegheny General Hospital. After training as a Catholic priest and several years as a diocesan priest in New Castle, Pennsylvania, he came to the North Side trauma center post as an experienced counselor.
"To say you enjoy chaplaincy is not the right word—you’re working with people who have been traumatized. But it is meaningful and satisfying to know you’ve made a difference for people dealing with severe blows, whose tragedies were enormous. I learned a huge amount. It made a great impression on me, but it was traumatic."
Since taking the helm at PATF, Christen has focused its efforts primarily on HIV testing and reconnecting with diagnosed patients that have been lost to care. As successful treatment for HIV and AIDS expands, public awareness—and many sources of public funding to combat the disease—have diminished. Meanwhile, infections among local youth, particularly African Americans, continue to rise.
"We’ve seen an increase in new cases among those 16 to 24, so we’re providing more testing at Cruze Bar, a Pittsburgh dance club." The club hosts the events on the first Wednesday of each month and on under 21 nights.
"It’s a place where young men and [transgender] women can really ‘vogue and practice,’" says Christen. "Our purpose is to work to build a safe space where young, Black, gay males and transgender individuals can feel safe and culturally identify. It also provides opportunities for health promotion."
Christen acknowledges that the stigma of the disease and the need for better testing and treatment are barriers to delivering care. He sees firsthand that the disparate array of social and medical services HIV patients require is fragmented in Pittsburgh and that public attitude remains a challenge.
"National AIDS/HIV strategy points out clearly that treatment is prevention, but look at the continuum of care. Even with patient consent, we have little access to medical records. Persad Center [a local human service organization for the LGBTQ community] has funding for behavioral health. Shepherd Wellness [a resource center for those with AIDS/HIV] has funding for congregate meals. Compare that with Washington’s Whitman Walker Clinic, or Fenway in Boston, or the Gay Men’s Health Center in New York—they’re essentially medical homes. If you read between the lines, that might be a good place for PATF to be setting its sights—toward becoming a medical home and pharmacy."
Nationally, the new Affordable Care Act is designed to create medical homes for all. When asked if the law will meet that goal for those with AIDS/HIV, Christen simply says, "I hope we’re close."