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Track Change program hopes to reduce the risk

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PHOENIX, Ariz. – Thanks to a new federal grant, being young, Indian and gay in an urban area is less confusing. A five-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control will help young Indian males and men of color reduce sexual risks through Track Change. The program is offered by Native Health, a Phoenix nonprofit organization that provides supplemental medical, dental and behavioral health services to the local Indian community.

Gerardo L. Angulo, a comprehensive risk counseling and services counselor, said program recipients are helped to deal with specific emotional, mental and physical obstacles of being gay in an urban area. The idea is to provide support, guidance and education to help young gay Indian men make choices that will reduce future risky behavior.

“We treat every person as a story. It’s (Native Health) a haven, a safe haven.”

The grant specifically targets men between 14 and 24 who have sex with other men. While the grant is for men of color, primarily Asian, Black, Indian or Hispanic, anyone who identifies as a white or Caucasian will not be turned away from the free, voluntary and confidential program.

No parental approval is required and U.S. citizenship is not a pre-requisite for the program, Track Change does not promote abstinence, which officials think is an unrealistic goal for teens.

“Let’s face it, our youth are practicing sex,” Angulo said.

“It (grant) targets youth who are practicing unsafe sex due to being homeless, still living at home or have little financial ability. Some of our youth have been known to engage in prostitution in order to survive.”

Continued risky sexual behavior can lead to STDs. Socializing can often mean going to all-night raves and or house parties, plus online hookups via Internet dating sites. Track Change coaches refusal skills for youth who could be talked into practicing unsafe sex.

The oldest client was 23 years old and the youngest was 14. Often, gay teens can only guess their behavior is high risk and their lack of context can be costly.

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“They say, ‘We go online and look for sex and it’s the easiest, most anonymous way you can do it,’ especially for those who do not want to go to clubs,” Angulo said.

The grant money will add services to an area much in need of funding and awareness, officials said. A funding category that provided a grant for transsexual youth was recently discontinued. And the state of Arizona, like other states, relies solely on federal funding for HIV-related services since no state funds are available, health officials said.

Native Health is one of three local centers that offer programs that have young, minority gay and lesbian youth in mind. 1N10 (named for the statistic that one in 10 youth are gay, lesbian or transsexual) and YEP (Youth Empowerment Program) House, a drop-in center for the same youth, work together with Track Change to help youth transition into their lifestyle in Phoenix, officials said.

“They (program clients) have being gay in common,” Angulo said. “It’s a real link. Because youth are in the program and they understand they’re not dysfunctional. In a lot of homes, there is no family support.”

For Maricopa County (Phoenix), about 6,983 have HIV, with 5,950 being men. Breaking those numbers down further, about 205 of those cases are reported American Indian/Alaska Native. Roughly 4,114 of the total cases are classified as men having sex with men, according to 2009 Arizona Department of Health Statistics.

Tyler TerMeer, director of Men’s and Youth Programs for Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, said that trends in this sector are watched carefully by prevention advocates.

“There continues to be an alarming ethnic/racial disparity in the infection rates for blacks and Native American/Alaska Natives and they continue to be over-represented in the rates of infection.”

The programs offer incentives to its clients to stimulate program use. The more popular a program is, the more likely its funding source will continue to allocate money that keep them open, Angulo said. One popular incentive recently gave out 70 $10 shopping cards.

Native Health’s goal is to raise its regular client list from six to around 20 regular participants. A CDC program review is slated for June. Organizers are certain the youth are there, Angulo said. It’s a matter of letting people know there is a place for Phoenix’s gay-lesbian-transsexual population to access tailored services.