“I had a compound fracture of my tibia from an auto-mobile accident in.. early 80’s, and I was told back then, that next morning when I came-to in the hospital, that I had a compound fracture of my tibia, I’d been hit by a car… ‘oh, and you’re HIV positive.’”
The story of Leslie Guinn’s life would sound like a movie script to some. Being born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Leslie’s life as a gay man without much community support lead him to life on the streets as an adult, where drug addiction and prostitution became a way of life.
To make matters worse, two epidemics were growing at this same time in the 80’s – crack cocaine addiction and AIDS. Both were also disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities as well as gay and bisexual men. Unfortunately, Leslie became one of the many caught in harm’s way.
However, Leslie was also fortunate to have found love and support from people who wanted to show him a better life.
Encouragement from a friend in Texas inspired Leslie to move to Detroit in 1993. This, however, came with a new problem, crack cocaine was cheaper in Detroit than in Dallas, and Leslie found himself back on the streets again.
He did find work in a little deli as a cook and was living in a motel off of Woodward Avenue, but he could never save enough money to pay rent. Work assisted him by taking money out of his paycheck and put it in a signed money order, so he would at least have that.
“But it was a mattress on the floor and… (to this day) I’m horrified of mice, but I reduced so low that the mice that were in my hotel room were my friends, and I’d name them. I remember that.”
Years of drug use and living life “in the darkness” as Leslie called it, caused him to reach a particularly low point in his life.
“I was cracked out of my mind, weighed about 90 pounds, my teeth were green. I was living deplorably… The man that I came to Detroit here with me had died, at Harper Hospital, and I think it probably was due to HIV or AIDS, I’m not sure. We both used and were un-protective.”
So in December near Christmas, Leslie resolved to hang himself in his motel room.
“Because I’ve come to that point that you often hear about – you have to be sick and tired, completely beaten, and change will come – or you become a statistic. Well, I resolved to become that statistic.”
But instead, change did come.
While walking through the streets that December at 4:45 in the morning, Leslie met a man he would later call his “Godfather” – Mr. Gerald Murphy.
“And he was the one that told me, Leslie, there’s another way of living that you obviously.. had forgotten. He says – ‘I see so much potential in you, it’s a shame that you don’t.’”
He eventually moved Leslie from the city of Detroit to his own home in Livonia.
“…I remember it so fervently. We pulled up at his house, he reached up to the sun visor and clicked this button and the garage went up – and I thought ‘oh my god, this man is rich. He’s got a garage door opener.’”
Leslie’s Godfather then began to help Leslie stitch his life back together.
“And this was before I met any people from any agencies. Before any Matrix’s or Be Well Medical Centers or anything, this is what he did.”
Mr. Murphy advocated for Leslie’s birth certificate in Texas, and helped him find some stability in his life, including a dish-washing job.
“But I would get my paycheck and go back out and blow the whole thing on drugs and alcohol until he finally got tired, and he says ‘I’ll take you back down to Detroit, but you’re not gonna live in my house and kill yourself.’”
Mr. Murphy put Leslie’s belongings in a Glad bag and gave him a choice.
“And he says, ‘now you can either call this number here, or you can get your bags and I’ll take you back down to the streets.’ And of course – I called that number.”
The meeting was for Narcotics Anonymous at Oakdale Recovery Center.
“And I went to the meeting, and I had a stem in my sock which is an apparatus used to smoke crack cocaine because I was a crack addict at this point.”
A few months later, Leslie still lived with Mr. Murphy and he took him to see a doctor. That is the first time Leslie arrived at Dr. Benson’s office at the Be Well Medical Center – which would become one of the most significant places in his life.
“But as he (Mr. Murphy) began to stitch my life together, he wanted me to see these clinicians for who they were, and what they represented in our society as gay people.”
Leslie also met Dorothy Dempster there – who now works with Matrix Human Services, Ryan White Program.
“And (she) asked me about my needs, and her wittiness and her smile, her commitment to making me feel comfortable was just infectious. I looked forward to every meeting when it was time to go to the doctor’s again.”
After more visits, Leslie was given medication and Ms. Dempster recommended therapy with Shelly McCallister, who also works for Matrix’s Ryan White Program.
“I’d never had therapy before and… she’s amazing too. Matrix is very fortunate to have those to women. They helped me in a way that is very difficult to put into words… and I’m a talker,” Leslie laughed.
“When I was full of fear and doubt, and coming in off the streets with the conviction that I would die that way, and that there was no hope for me… those women, with their professionalism, had a way of administering it so gently and so profoundly sincere, that it broke my shell. They both were always on time – and thought what the next move would be for me before I could think of it. Literally writing and spelling and being my voice, and that’s what I think you people do here at Matrix.”
Today, Leslie is 17 years clean and sober. He now works for the same place he went to for that very first meeting, Oakdale Recovery Center, where he has been employed for the last two years. In the first six months, Leslie was named Employee of the Month. At the end of last year, he was nominated for employee of the quarter.
“But they connected with me in a way to where, I today now am a clinician. A professional clinician. Licensed peer recovery coach for the State of Michigan.”
Since starting work there, Leslie has lost seven clients but he has touched many, many more lives. Leslie’s Godfather Gerald Murphy died in 2016, and his mother died the following year.
“I’m sure there’s more Dorothy Dempster’s and Shelly McCallister’s under the umbrella of Matrix but I was blessed to meet those two, those are mine and they’re family. I’ve shared every step of the way with them – and I can see in their eyes, the pride that they have for me. And I wouldn’t tarnish that for anything in the world.”
Despite being HIV positive, Leslie has not had a serious illness. He takes his medicine regularly and continues to be clean and sober.
“Every day I get the opportunity to wake up and see this person and say that I’m so, so grateful for who I am today and the help that I’m giving to people… was inspired through people from Matrix.”
“Whoever gets to see this video or read this article, I urge you to please continue to strive to find more Leslie’s… we’re out there.”
Leslie was also featured in an article by “The Body”, an HIV and AIDS awareness resource. The article provides in-depth research regarding the statistics and history of HIV and AIDS in Detroit, including an interview with Leslie. Read that article here.