The AIDS Committee of Ottawa finally has a new home in Old Ottawa East – just in time for World AIDS Day.
The organization moved into a freestanding building at 19 Main St. on Dec. 1, the same day people worldwide unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died on World AIDS Day.
The move marked an important transition for the ACO, which has been struggling to find a new location since a safety audit revealed deficiencies with its previous home at 251 Bank St. two years ago.
The group had intended to move across the street into an office building at 240 Bank St., but on move-in day the building’s owners said the ACO would not be able to set up kitchen, laundry or harm reduction facilities it needed, said ACO’s executive director Khaled Salam. The ACO and the building’s owner are still locked in a legal battle over the terms of the lease for that space, Salam said.
While Salam said it was the ACO’s intention to stay in the downtown core, high lease costs and willing landlords are hard to find, so the Old Ottawa East location is the next best thing. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the previous location, Salam said. The Transitway is relatively nearby and the ACO has asked OC Transpo to consider moving the Route 5 bus stop closer to its facility.
“So far the reaction has been very positive,” Salam said. The 30 to 60 clients who use the centre every day have not reported challenges getting to the new location at the corner of Greenfield Avenue, he said. There are also 16 full-time staff and up to 100 volunteers (many of whom are also clients) who work at the location, which used to house the offices of a telecommunications company.
Now, it’s an inviting, plan-filled living room with a kitchen, large dining table and places to lounge, including therapeutic chairs. The ACO serves people who have HIV/AIDS or are at risk of contracting the disease. The organization provides support, education and outreach services that promotes wellbeing for people living with or impacted by AIDS. The centre offers therapeutic services, health promotion such as subsidized gym memberships, social groups and advocacy efforts.
The new building will open up opportunities for new programs, Salam said, including things like a community garden or fitness programming along the canal.
“When you have your own building, it completely changes the dynamics,” Salam said. “You have a lot more creative freedom.”
Salam was set to introduce himself to the neighbourhood at a Dec. 9 Old Ottawa East Community Association meeting, but so far, the reaction has been mostly welcoming, he said.
Two people did contact the ACO with concerns about the harm-reduction programming the centre offers, he said. ACO hands out clean needles and safe inhalation materials to prevent the transmission of infections among drug users. The centre’s policies don’t allow drug use on or around the property and the ACO asks clients to safely dispose of needles in sharp-collection containers on site or in portable disposable containers the committee hands out.
“I feel that people tend to fear what they don’t know – they can make some assumptions around it,” Salam said. Harm reduction programs reduce the transmission of diseases like AIDS and offer opportunities for drug users to connect with services that can assist them in reducing or eliminating their drug use, Salam said, and the programs usually reduce the amount of needle and pipe litter in a community by offering a safe option for disposal. The ACO is the only location within Old Ottawa East offering harm-reduction supplies, but similar services are offered at many nearby community health centres such as the one located in Sandy Hill.
“We are going to collaborate with our neighbours to ensure it’s a safe space for all,” Salam said.
The ACO will be doing outreach in Old Ottawa East to educate neighbours about its programs and the centre is planning to host an open house in the new year.
More information about the ACO’s services can be found at aco-cso.ca.