When someone looking for help walks into GMHC’s lobby at 307 W. 38th street for the first time, it’s Darryl DeVito who welcomes them. While his official job title is reception coordinator, DeVito’s role goes a lot deeper.
“I want to give them a direction to go in to help them get on the right track,” said DeVito, who’s run the front desk for over seven years. “It’s not just a job. It comes from my heart.”
DeVito’s mission is to connect people with the services they need at GMHC, whether they’re newly diagnosed with HIV and require medication, or they don’t know their status. Many also may be dealing with mental health and substance use issues.
A growing number of the people he greets are young and from out of state–some fresh off the bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal a few blocks away, he said.
They have “a lot of issues and stories,” DeVito said. Often, they’re not ready to talk.
“I see them with their heads down or just not ready to speak,” he said. “I make eye contact, reassuring them that they’re in the right place–that they’re going to be heard and be helped.”
That means starting a conversation. “I have to feel it out when I talk to them,” he said. “We work together with what’s going on at this very moment.”
“It’s not just about having HIV. It’s everything that goes with it. It’s the stigma,” he explained. “Mostly I hear that people have pushed them away, saying they’ve got too many problems.”
For many, he added, “it’s so overwhelming, they don’t know where to start.”
“I like to be that start,” DeVito said. “They don’t have faith that anyone can actually help them. Just listening to someone can help–and give them that faith. I’ll say, ‘Let’s brainstorm—and get something moving here. We’re going to go down this road together and figure it out.’”
“We talk, dialogue. Then, they look up, pick up their eyes–and I see that they are connected,” he said.
DeVito’s task is to obtain their name and contact information, so the Intake Department can register them as a client. But first, he wants to find out what they need. “I help prior to the paperwork,” he explained.
Recently, a young gay man from Ohio appeared in the lobby and told DeVito he’d been diagnosed with HIV. DeVito learned that he’d just turned 18 and had left home as soon as he was able, because his stepfather was abusive, and his mother was using drugs. Both were homophobic.
He’d used his last paycheck to take a bus to New York City, DeVito said. “He didn’t have a dime to his name. He’d had a long ride, so the first thing I did was go to our pantry and get him some food.”
A lot of folks who arrive in GMHC’s lobby need to eat before they can talk, DeVito added. “Once they’ve gotten something in their system and they’re eating their cookies, they feel more comfortable.”
When DeVito learned the youth had been off his HIV medication for some time, he switched into action mode. “First thing, we’ve got to get him the medications and get this going,” he said.
He’s made a point of memorizing the phone extensions for all GMHC’s staff. “I know who to call at any moment,” he said, whether it’s the Testing Department for an HIV test, a client advocate for health insurance and medication, or the Legal Department for an immigration asylum case.
“I’ll reach out to my pharmacy and Advocacy Department colleagues. They’re on it. They’ll get Medicaid for you, so you can get your medication right away,” he said.
“We try to zero in on priorities and open up doors gradually as we go,” he said. Many folks need the basics—housing and food. As a first step, DeVito will supply a hygiene kit and let them know they can get bags of nutritious food at GMHC’s pantry distribution every Wednesday.
Refuge in NYC
These days, DeVito said he’s seeing a lot more people from out of state, often newly diagnosed with HIV. Many identify as transgender or haven’t figured out their gender identity. He attributes this to the national rise in LGBTQ hate activity and the spread of anti-LGBTQ legislation in other states, amid the polarized social and political climate.
The newcomers tend to be very young, he said, and often have received an HIV diagnosis somewhere where they can’t find services. “They don’t know what to do with that information and they can’t tell their families, so they leave,” he said, adding that he’s seeing people from small towns in the South and from as far away as Oregon and Washington State.
Like the youth from Ohio, they come to New York City. “These people are in dire need. They’re being pushed aside,” said DeVito, a native New Yorker. “We’re big enough to help them.”
He tries to get the youth connected to services right away, so they’re not taken advantage of. “They’re coming in with just the bags on their back,” he said. They could be sleeping on the subway or staying in a single-room occupancy hotel. Some have had their ID cards, money and medication stolen, he added.
DeVito wants them to know that GMHC is a safe place, telling them, “You’re a human, I’m a human, and we’re going to make this work.”
Some people aren’t ready to be helped, often because of mental health or substance use issues–or both, DeVito said. They may have been living on the streets and acting out, he said. “Deep down, they’re suffering. That’s what I see. There’s pain.”
“If they don’t want to talk, I give them my cell phone number and tell them to give me a call. They may come back–but it has to be when they’re ready,” DeVito said.
“They don’t always come back,” he added. “But the majority of them do.”
DeVito still remembers one young man who entered the lobby dressed all in black, with his hands and head covered. Sensing something was wrong, he got up from the desk, introduced himself and ushered the man into an intake room for privacy. “He wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were down.”
DeVito learned that the man was from Nigeria, where his parents had poured kerosene on him and burned him. “It was because he was gay. They tried to burn it out of him,” he said.
“I needed to listen and be present,” he said. “We were able to get him medical attention, so he could use his fingers again, and find him a place to live.”
Months later, at a Wednesday food distribution, the young man returned to thank him, telling DeVito he’d wanted to die, and their meeting changed his life. “It was amazing to see the turnaround–and the light there was inside this person again,” he said.
“That’s why I love my job,” DeVito said. “Sometimes you don’t even realize the impact when you help someone.”