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Thrift stores offer customers HIV tests while they shop

by Megan Barnes
Contributor
Monday Feb 7, 2011
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Thrifters in California and Florida can find more than outfits and decor at a chain of thrift stores that benefit the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Out of the Closet shoppers can find out their HIV status in only 20 minutes and speak with a counselor--and this is one of the many reasons the stores stand out (aside from their bold fuchsia and turquoise paint schemes.)

"Ninety-six cents of every dollar goes directly back towards patient care, so if say, you buy a shirt for $3, 12 cents goes to operational costs and the other $2.88 goes directly back to patient care," said general manager Jonathan Kreuyer, who started out as a cashier at "the world’s most fabulous thrift store" in 1995, when it had only four locations in Los Angeles.

The AHF just opened its 22nd Out of the Closet location in South Beach, one of three stores in Florida.

When the AHF was founded in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, the H originally stood for hospice. With the onset of antiretroviral drugs, the hospice centers became health centers that treated anyone living with HIV/AIDS, regardless of their ability to pay.

AHF President Michael Weinstein, who founded the organization by collecting donations in coffee cans, conceived the idea of operating thrift stores in 1989. And they have been an important revenue source ever since.

"We wanted something that would be a steady stream of income that wouldn’t be dependent upon government grants and the like, and also felt there was a lot of sympathy in the community for the cause and that people would want to give donations to a store," said Weinstein. "We operate businesses which we derive income from, which allows us to expand our services, so when government funding gets cut, we’re still able to maintain services."

The AHF treats more than 150,000 people in 26 countries, and Out of the Closet generates $11.5 million annually for the non-profit.

Weinstein decided to introduce HIV testing in stores in 1997.

"Back then, people would make doctor appointments and it would be like a week and a half before they could get in and then the day before, they would get scared, cancel their appointment and never get tested," said Kreuyer. "So what Michael came up with was to make it like an impulse buying practice where people see the sign and it’s instant; where you don’t have to think about it, you just get tested and know your status."

The program is one leg of its broader HIV testing effort, which includes sending mobile testing vans to high risk areas to combat the epidemic.

Several of the thrift stores are located next door to AHF health clinics as well as full-service pharmacies, which specialize in HIV/AIDS medicine.

"The pharmacies aren’t just HIV pharmacies and it’s critical that we get people with insurance to come in because they’re helping someone who doesn’t have insurance get their medicine," said Kreuyer. "Our mission is you will never go without medicine, so if your co-pay is 10 dollars and you can’t pay it because that’s all you have for the week for food, we make sure you still get your medicine."

Out of the Closet is a favorite among celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Ron Howard, Bruce Willis and Ellen DeGeneres. Film and television production companies have also bought from or donated wardrobes and sets to Out of the Closet, where designer labels are a common find.

Someone recently donated a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture that sold for $2,000.

Out of the Closet also made Los Angeles headlines in May 2009 when its famed "Muscle Man" balloon went missing from the roof of its Sunset Boulevard store. Muscle Man found his way back to the store’s parking lot a few days later with a note explaining he just wanted to take a break and hang out with some friends, whose identities are still a mystery.

While the recession did result in a dip in donations, and conversely an upswing in customers, the chain is on the rebound and plans to open a new store in Fort Lauderdale in the coming months. Weinstein said AHF is also looking into expanding to Washington, D.C.

"We’ve taken the Out of the Closet brands, which may be better known to people than the services, and leveraged that to make more services available to people," he said. "We’re a very efficient organization and people can be very secure in the fact that when they’re donating to us, they’re money is going to be used for the purpose for which they wanted it used."

Log onto www.outofthecloset.org and www.aidshealth.org for store locations and more information. Call (877) 2 PICK IT UP to arrange a free donation pick-up.

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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