On Tuesday evening, just outside of Twist nightclub in Miami Beach, Jose Javier and Mikael Kiezer waited for Victor Gonzalez under the gleam of the club’s red neon sign.
A few minutes before 10:30 p.m., when Gonzalez appeared, Kiezer pulled a yellow folding sign out of the van parked in front of the club and propped it open to signal the start of the night’s work. “Free and Fast HIV Testing,” it read.
The trio wasn’t headed into Twist to party — they work for the non-profit Latinos Salud. They would spend the night raising awareness about how to prevent the spread of HIV while offering rapid testing and handing out condoms outside one of Miami Beach’s well-known clubs. Their busiest time for testing, they said, is midnight or later.
Gonzalez stepped inside the large van where a gray folding table and two chairs were set up for testing, and spread out the forms they use to report test results to the state health department. Javier fiddled with his phone to get music playing from the speaker near the van and soon the catchy pop songs of summer were playing outside of the club as well.
Latinos Salud — Spanish for Latino Health — was founded seven years ago out of an office in Broward County and still offers testing and outreach services there. But after another HIV-testing organization, South Beach AIDS Project, suffered financial problems and closed, Latinos Salud added an office in the Miami Beach area last summer to help fill a gap in services. Initially open just a couple of days a week, this month it began operating full-time.
Outreach efforts, like this one outside of the longstanding gay bar Twist, are a major part of the organization’s strategy to reach the community. While gay men are one of the audiences it aims to reach, Latinos Salud offers its services to everyone. The colorful van, painted with a purple skyline against a red and orange sunset and the phrase Pride Community Support, can also be found parked outside of the bathhouse, Club Aqua, in Miami, spots known for public sex and universities. While the Broward office gets more walk-ins for testing, going straight to where people are mingling, partying and having sex has been critical in Miami Beach.
“On the beach, people go for the hip scene,” said Stephen Fallon, the executive director of the organization in a phone interview. “It’s even more important here to go out to where they are.”
Since opening the Miami Beach office, the group has worked to build relationships with area club owners by signing agreements that allow Latino Salud workers to offers services outside the clubs and also approach those inside, he said.
While South Florida has long been a hot spot of new HIV infections, Miami-Dade County has become ground zero for HIV and AIDS with the highest rates of new infections in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Around 11 p.m., one man climbed into the van and Kiezer followed him in, shutting the door behind them. Testing is done one-on-one, confidentially. The rapid tests take 15 to 20 minutes and use a pinprick of blood to test whether it’s reactive for HIV antibodies. A second test is needed to confirm whether the individual is HIV-positive and rule out a false positive.
Telling someone they may have HIV is “different every time,” Kiezer said.
“Some people cry. Some people are calm. I try to keep in mind that their reaction is not about me and just let the experience happen.”
Outside the van, cigarette smoke and the occasional blast of air conditioning from the club’s exit doors cut through the humid air as Gonzalez and Javier handed out condoms and lubricant from a plastic bag containing 100 of the assembled packets.
“We try to mix it up” and give out different types of condoms, Gonzalez said. During gay pride weekend in April, he said, the group gave out 33,000 condoms.
Close to midnight, Javier and Kiezer breezed past the bouncers and entered Twist to hand out more condoms and fliers about the group’s services, which include support groups and other help for people diagnosed with HIV. Through the purple strobe lights, with nearly-naked patrons dressed in briefs and flip-flops and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” thumping, a few men nodded, thanked them and pocketed the condoms. But it’s still early, and the seven different bars inside the club weren’t close to filling up yet.
“It’s dead right now,” Javier said as he returned to the van.
“I think everyone is still at Score,” Gonzalez said, pointing out a photo on his Facebook newsfeed referring to another bar.
Later is often busier for the van, all three agreed. They’ve found clubgoers are more likely to stop by for a test when they’re ready to head home. That means they’ll often stick it out with the van until 3:00 a.m. or later. Twist stays open until 5:00 a.m.
With no more condoms to hand out, Kiezer opened his phone to sign onto Grindr — a phone app where men can meet other interested men nearby — in order to alert more people to the testing van. Social media is another tool that Latinos Salud uses to get the word out about its services. Kiezer changed his headline to say “Free HIV Testing” and will often get a few people a night inquiring about where the van is parked.
Around 1:30 in the morning, a man walked out of Twist and approached the van purposefully: “Yeah, let’s do this. I’m ready,” he said as he stepped inside.
Later, inside Twist, he said that seeing the van and knowing it was a free service influenced his decision. “It had been a while, so I said, ‘let me go ahead and get myself tested,’” he said. “I’m non-reactive so I’m happy.”