In the end, the call to save Robert Buntin’s life came from his beloved pet cats.
Devastated by news that he was HIV-positive, Buntin, then 35, had spent a year spiraling into a drug addiction he’d quietly hoped would kill him. Nothing had budged him from his mission, until he heard one of his typically silent cats plaintively meowing.
“I knew it was because she was hungry,” said Buntin, who was spending all the money he had on methamphetamine. The realization jolted him into action.
“What kind of person was I to love these two creatures so much, but yet I am killing them by not feeding them?” he said. “I started thinking about finding help for them and for me.”
Buntin soon walked into the Midtown location of Positive Impact Health Centers (PIHC) — one of the city’s premier providers of HIV specialty care and support services — and began the journey that would end with him clean, happy and working to help others find hope.
The HIV services hub recently moved its Midtown location to Decatur — part of a sprawling revamp that includes plans for expanding the Duluth center and growing services at both locations.
Both measures will enable one of the city’s largest providers of HIV services to LGBT and working poor Atlantans to dramatically increase the number of new clients, at a time when HIV caseloads continue to rise in the region.
“The critical part for us is the new space allows us to add a pharmacy for both centers,” said PIHC CEO Larry Lehman, explaining that the on-site facility will help in getting people on medication and ultimately reducing viral loads in the city.
“The more we can make it a one-stop shopping piece for folks, I think the more adherence you see,” he said.
Downtown, Midtown expansion force two moves
The nonprofit will debut its new Decatur facility with a Dec 1 community fair coinciding with World AIDS Day.
“I am pleased to know that Positive Impact Health Centers [are] making a move to have a space that is more comprehensive,” said openly queer Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta), who will be in attendance. “I want to partner with them to reach more Georgians.”
Atlanta is a known epicenter for new HIV cases.
In March 2015, AID Gwinnett and Positive Impact responded to the crisis by combining to form PIHC. The resulting new agency serviced some 9,000 clients with a budget of $6.5 million and nearly 100 staff members, making it one of the largest HIV care centers in metro Atlanta.
About a year earlier, expansion downtown forced Positive Impact to relocate to West Peachtree Street. Within 18 months of that move, agency leaders learned they would be displaced by yet another high-rise. When a year of looking yielded nothing with comparable space and rent, Lehman said they looked to downtown Decatur. The Midtown offices moved in late September and the Duluth center will move to a new facility in November.
“There was trepidation of how would it effect our numbers — would we see a decrease, would we see an increase,” he said. “We haven’t seen any impact on our numbers and we haven’t heard clients complain.”
In fact, the move has come with lots of benefits, said COO Joey Helton.
“The reality is that the majority of our clients didn’t live in Midtown anyway, they commuted into Midtown to get our services,” Helton said.
The single-story building is more accessible for clients with disabilities, he said. There’s on-site parking for clients who drive and MARTA is a block away.
More space, privacy for clients living with HIV
And then there’s the matter of added space.
The new facility is a sweeping 25,000 square feet compared to 14,000 square feet in Midtown. Inside, there’s room for a large pharmacy, several exam rooms and counseling spaces. Among the staff’s favorite features is a private entrance and service area that allows clients living with HIV to maintain their privacy and dignity when seeking treatment.
The need for that type of sensitivity is something Buntin understands very well. He was an emotional wreck when he learned of his own status in 2010.
“There was a shame and guilt,” he said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. But it did.”
He drastically increased his recreational use of drugs in hopes that he would overdose. Rock bottom came when he was reduced to letting his cats wander the street to find food.
Buntin got a friend to take his pets for a while and entered recovery in January of 2012.
Five years later, he’s clean and working as a counselor at the center — with healthy, well-fed pets at home.
His advice for anyone hesitant to make a change? There are people there who can help you.
“What are their needs? What are their hopes?” he said. “It is reachable.”