Canada’s Bruce House Continues Its Fight for Persons Living With HIV

This video excerpt is our second entry in a 6-part series on individuals and international organizations working to bring local and global awareness to the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

Originally known as The AIDS Housing Group of Ottawa, and where those living with AIDS retreated for end-of-life care, Bruce House in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, has endured for 33 years by adapting its services to fit what is needed at the time, shifting from primarily hospice care to transitional care, and continuously offering support services—even surviving the closure of its original transition house several years ago due to lack of funding.

This video excerpt, in which we speak with Doug Cooper, former manager of client programs and services, and Patrick Morley, office and communications coordinator, is our second entry in a 6-part series on individuals and international organizations working to bring local and global awareness to the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

For our first entry in this series, click here.

Transcript

What contributes to Bruce House’s longevity?

Cooper: Bruce House is very stubborn. We've had to fight for everything that we've had. We have not fit into any funding stream really, so we've just had to fight for everything that we've had. And I think that has made Bruce House a really strong agency.

And I think also the ability for Bruce House to be able to adapt and change to what is needed at the time. We changed from being a hospice to now providing support services to people who are able to live independently with minimal support. I think just really being able to adapt.

And then on top of that, Bruce House has a really great group of employees who work there who makes sure that everything happens and puts the clients first, and they really do fight to find different forms of funding and all of those things.

The world should know that just a little tiny agency can do anything. You don't have to be a rich agency to be able to provide world-class support and services. Because we've been doing that for 30 years with very little money.

Bruce House is also the only agency of its type between the city of Toronto and the city of Montreal, so we serve a pretty large area. I think that the world should just know that Bruce House is a pretty damn good place.

How has the pandemic exacerbated mental health issues among persons living with HIV?

While we have a good health care system in Ontario, it has its weaknesses, and one of them is the grossly inadequate mental health supports, especially if you can't pay for counseling. As a general rule in this province, if you're seeing somebody who's a medical doctor, it's paid for; psychologists are not, counselors and therapists or are not paid for.

We're also very bad at gathering medical data, horrendously bad, in this province. So I can only answer this question anecdotally. As a sector, I think once we've recovered from the pandemic, there'll be an onus on us to organize our own studies and really get an answer to this question.

Before the pandemic, mental health supports were so bad we had clients telling us they were waiting for years for support. So we started our own in-house program with community partners, and it was at capacity from day 1.

We also knew that social isolation was a huge factor in our clients’ health. So many of our programs had a social connection component: community kitchen meals together, a volunteer buddy program, just anything that would get people out who are living alone in an apartment in isolation.

So far during the pandemic, many of our clients have asked, and they keep asking me this, “When can we get back to in-person meetings or volunteer buddy? When can we get back to our social events? I miss that.” That importance is there. And the reality is, telephone calls and Zoom chats don't make up for that in person contact.

I can tell you looking at our clients, some of them are rallying and doing relatively well. But you see the struggle. We have clients missing appointments, and we know they’re substance users we know their substance use has increased—that's why they're missing appointments.

We see other clients walking in; some I've known for years. You can tell their hygiene isn't what it used to be, they're not taking care about how they dress. Or sometimes they have that very shut down expression, they're just here going through the motions, they need to pick up food, they need to get out.

I'm really afraid of the long-term mental health impact of the pandemic.

We're of course all talking about, “Let's get the vaccines, we'll all be fine,” but the reality is, it'll be years, maybe a decade, before some people recover. And some may not. There may be for some people are already dealing with mental health, a permanent setback.

I think 10 years from now we'll be looking at this pandemic and lessons learned, and I think mental health will be one of the biggest things we’ll outline.