By Yvonne Yorke
– December 2021 –
World AIDS Day, designated on the 1st of December every year since 1988, is an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) pandemic caused by the spread of the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection and mourning those who have died of the disease.
We are very fortunate to have two organizations within the St. James Town community that are invoking purposeful change for those coping with HIV – a condition that damages the immune system. These organizations are Casey House and Fife House. This December 1st, they will be sharing, giving and remembering.
Casey House is a HIV specialty hospital that provides harm reduction, inpatient and outpatient care. Its website states, “We are Canada’s first and only hospital for people living with and at risk of HIV, and have a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to health and well-being.”
June Callwood (1924-2007), the founder of Casey House, was a renowned journalist, author and activist. She is responsible for starting numerous charities in Toronto, including Casey House which was named after her late son Casey Frayne. Casey was killed by an impaired driver in 1982 at the age of 20 while riding his motorcycle home from university. Having experienced the terrible tragedy of losing her youngest child, Callwood was incensed by the way society was shunning young men dying of AIDS and committed to creating a place where they could die with support and dignity.
Former site of Casey House, 9 Huntley Street. Now Fife House’s “Huntley Transitional
Casey House was founded in 1986. The original location for Casey House (9 Huntley Street) was purchased in March 1987. One year later, Casey House was able to open its doors (and arms) to the first client in March 1988.
In 1991, Casey House invited Her Royal Highness, Diana Princess of Wales to the hospital. This visit gained international attention and helped destigmatize the myth that HIV/AIDS spreads easily through touch, as Diana was photographed breaking royal protocol by “embracing in public” when she held hands with hospital patients.
Almost 30 years after opening its doors, Casey House was able to expand, opening its NEW doors to clients at its current location – 119 Isabella Street, “a loud and proud facility of HIV tailored health care,” according to Lisa McDonald, Communications Officer at Casey House. In doing so, an opportunity was also opened for Fife House to take over the original 9 Huntley location, making way for Fife’s “Huntley Transitional Housing Program.” What a tremendous example of community collaboration!
Casey House, 119 Isabella Street.
For both organizations, World AIDS Day allows the opportunity to show support for people living with HIV and to remember those lost due to an AIDS-related illness. “It is both a day of celebration and grief; of visibility and acknowledgement of the impacts of HIV/AIDS in our clients’, staff and community’s lives,” says Nadine Sookermany, Executive Director at Fife House, located at 490 Sherbourne Street.
Fife House “provides secure affordable housing and support services to anyone living with HIV/AIDs and works to achieve social change through research and advocacy that addresses systemic oppression,” states the organization’s website. We asked Sookermany the following questions:
- Historically, what has this date meant for your organization?
There are an estimated 38 million people who have the virus across the world – over 60,000 here in Canada. Despite it being a newly diagnosed illness, from the 1980s, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS related illnesses. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not forget that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is one of the most deadly and destructive pandemics in history. In addition, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is increasing among racialized and Indigenous communities, which is about the pervasiveness of systemic racism and lack of access to healthcare, specifically HIV medications and specialized treatments.
- What positive effect has it presented for your organization and the cause it represents?
Most importantly it gives visibility to those who are living with HIV/AIDS and carves out a space for our clients, staff and volunteers who are living with HIV/AIDS to speak about their experiences, loss and so much more, without stigma or judgement. Stigma is still one of the most pervasive issues facing people living with HIV/AIDS today – creating barriers and challenges for people to access treatment, to secure housing, and to access the social supports they need to thrive in society. Taking time to acknowledge the impacts of disclosure and how this affects community members is key. Right now, an emerging issue is that people are living longer with HIV and are now aging – which presents new challenges and opportunities.
- What does Fife House do to commemorate this day?
Fife House is involved in an inter-agency World AIDS Day event to be held on December 1 at the AIDS memorial in Barbara Hall Park, The 519 Community Centre. This event is in partnership with 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, Action Positive, African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario (ACCHO), Africans in Partnership Against AIDS (APAA), AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), People with AIDS Foundation (PWA), BlackCAP, Latinos Positivos, PASAN, The Teresa Group and The 519. Together we are hosting a candlelight vigil and walking in solidarity to acknowledge those we have lost. This will culminate in an online event that evening to share stories and highlight the significance of this day, not only for those we have lost but for those who are currently living with HIV/AIDS.