By Troy Espera
The Tenderloin District bustles with midday foot traffic on this sunny and unusually warm early-April Thursday. Rowland Mendoza, HIV prevention program manager at San Francisco Community Health Center, and his team weave past other pedestrians as they march with gear in tow down Polk Street to the Tenderloin Linkage Center at U.N. Plaza along Market Street. With a case full of HIV and Hepatitis C testing supplies slung across his body, Mendoza explains to a newly hired team member what to expect once on-site as they walk.
The Tenderloin Linkage Center, or TLC, opened in January 2022 as a key component of Mayor London Breed’s Tenderloin Emergency Initiative. The concept: A centralized hub that offers a variety of health and human services for the estimated thousands of San Franciscans who suffer from addiction, mental illness, and who experience homelessness or are marginally housed. Inside, services include substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, and food coordination. While outside in the fenced-off courtyard laundry and shower facilities are also available.
Mendoza’s mobile team joins the effort every Thursday afternoon by providing free HIV and Hep C tests. It’s a collaboration between SFCHC and the city that he says makes sense.
(HIV Prevention Program Manager Rowland Mendoza and Volunteer Julie Tran preparing to engage with community members)
“We’re already serving the most marginalized and underserved folks who are homeless and we already have the expertise for providing testing services,” he says. “So when the opportunity [at TLC] came to us, it was like a win-win.”
Krista Gaeta, Tenderloin Response director at the San Francisco Department of Health, says she’s thrilled to partner with SFCHC on-site each week.
“HIV and Hep C are common health risks for people who use drugs,” she says. “Therefore, prevention education, hygienic supplies, testing, and treatment connections are critical components of our programming. Being able to have SFCHC’s testing services on-site increases our ability to reach folks that may not seek out these services on their own and provides them with an opportunity to better understand and manage their health.”
The main hallway buzzes with activity as guests move from room to room connecting with service providers. The SFCHC team sets up their testing room at the end of the hall, covering folding tables with sterile liners before laying out their supplies—lancets, alcohol swabs, and gauze pads, among others. For added privacy, they haul in a tall tri-paneled screen. Two team members, Yuvy Tankel and Julie Tran, head out to the courtyard to invite guests to the testing room where Mendoza and PrEP Coordinator Rence Uson are ready to serve. Mendoza says they have the capacity to perform 10 HIV and 10 Hep C tests each afternoon they’re on-site. Since TLC opened in January, they’ve accomplished nearly 79 HIV and 87 Hep C tests.
“A successful day is being able to connect with the clients, know their story, have them do a test, especially if they haven’t done a test prior, and then being able to disclose the results,” Mendoza explains. “Regardless of what the results are, we still try to link them with resources.”
According to Gaeta, she counts SFCHC’s weekly HIV and Hep C testing service as a major contribution to the goals of the Tenderloin Linkage Center.
(SFCHC Prevention Team: Mackie Bella, Sam Caudra, and Kevin Zhou practicing HIV and Hep C Testing)
“One of our primary goals at the TLC is to connect guests to critical dignity, social, and health services,” she says. “Having partnerships with agencies such as SFCHC allows us to deliver on the goal of bringing accessible and low-barrier health services to guests that help them navigate their personal paths to wellness.”
SFCHC’s free HIV and Hep C testing service is available at the Tenderloin Linkage Center every Thursday from 1–5pm. For more information, contact SFCHC through our website sfcommunityhealth.com, call (415) 292-3400, or visit sf.gov/location/tenderloin-linkage-center.