Paula and daughter Crystal
It is a hot summer day and in the backyard of a leafy neighborhood in downtown Toronto there are merry sounds of children playing and adults lounging around in chairs, shooting the breeze.
To a passerby such a scene would tell the story of a family enjoying an ordinary day. To some extent it is. It is the story of another kind of family, in another kind of home. Two of the three children bouncing plastic balls are grandchildren of a woman named Paula; the other is her child, Crystal. A few years ago, Crystal lived in this home with her mother. Paula herself lived here, off and on for many years, as did other men and women who like her were homeless, suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse and are HIV-positive. Today they are visiting the place they once called home.
Home is McEwan House, a program founded 15 years ago by LOFT Community Services, a not-for-profit with a Canadian Anglican heritage. “McEwan House was founded at a time when AIDS was a disease of gay men and intravenous drug users, and a diagnosis meant certain death and virtually all clients required palliative care,” notes a LOFT brochure. The McEwan program includes residential support (housing and personal care support at the LOFT-owned duplexes) and community support (for those able to live in the community).
Paula came to McEwan House in 1993. After years of living on the streets, crack addiction and involvement in the sex trade took their toll and she contracted HIV and hepatitis C. She only found out she had HIV when her son was born and was diagnosed as being HIV-positive; he was sent to live with Paula’s mother in New York, while she remained in Toronto and tried to take control of her life.
It was not easy living with a host of other people (McEwan House can house between 15 to 20 clients per year) with their own challenges and needs, said Paula. She was once described as “an angry and defiant participant” in the McEwan program. “But the staff were always supportive,” she recalled. Other housemates later became like family; they gathered for holiday dinners and birthdays and went on summer vacations.
Paula was eventually able to move into her own apartment, but with continued access to McEwan’s community support program. In 1995, Paula returned to McEwan when she found out that she was pregnant; with LOFT staff present, she gave birth to Crystal, who earned the moniker “McEwan baby.”
Mother and daughter lived for a while at McEwan, and, later, moved into their own apartment. “That was a disaster. It was not a safe environment,” she said, since crack dealers plagued the area. Paula continued to struggle with addiction and health issues but she stayed connected with McEwan and eventually achieved stability. But she later suffered kidney failure, a condition that requires her to have dialysis for 10 hours every night. She also continues to see her HIV/AIDS specialist.
Today, Paula lives with Crystal and a Jack Russell terrier named Lucky, in a safer apartment in central Toronto. “I have my days. Sometimes I cry because my body hurts. But the last three weeks, I’ve been okay. I got good support,” said Paula, now 50.
Her three children (the eldest, a daughter is married with children), including Crystal – now 10 – know that she has AIDS.
At the 16th International AIDS Conference, taking place Aug. 13-18 in Toronto, Paula’s story of coping with mental illness, addiction and AIDS will be heard by thousands of delegates via a video documentary, Hope.
“It was time I told my story. I’m more comfortable with myself,” said Paula. “But I don’t want people to be prejudiced because of my children. My eldest daughter didn’t want to be a part of this (video) … People are still afraid (of this disease).”
Jane Corbett, LOFT’s director of development, said, “I think Paula was very courageous to tell her story.”
Another HIV/AIDS related program pioneered by LOFT is Street Outreach Services (S.O.S.), the only outreach in Toronto that provides services specific to hundreds of street youth involved in or at risk of becoming involved in prostitution.
Since its founding 20 years ago, S.O.S. has helped 1,100 youth, said its director, Susan Miner. Most young people who approach S.O.S. have histories of sexual and/or mental abuse in their families and have fled to Toronto hoping to find a better life. Instead, they end up homeless, unemployed and fall prey to prostitution in order to survive, said Ms. Miner. “A vast majority of the kids are hurt, threatened in the streets.”
Most of the youth are introduced to S.O.S. via the program’s outreach workers who are on Toronto’s streets six nights per week. S.O.S. has a drop-in program where youth are offered counseling and other services such as a clinic, safe sex education, confidential testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, legal advice, and housing support; they also have access to laundry facilities, a shower, toiletries and clothing. There is also a group room for films and discussions. “Every week, just for fun, we play silly movies and have popcorn because sometimes I think, kids get too much social work,” said Ms. Miner.
S.O.S. provides the youth, 60 to 70 per cent of whom have less than Grade 10 education, with training programs and encourages them to go back to school or take correspondence courses. Ms. Miner said most of the youth she has met “when they do have the choices, don’t pick prostitution as an issue that they want to be involved in. They leave the streets.” Some have married, moved away, started businesses or gone back to school.
Despite its success in helping street youth, Ms. Miner said funding has been an issue. “For a lot of people, out of sight is out of mind,” she said. They are also largely invisible to society because “we don’t want to talk about sex at that level,” she said, adding that society’s tolerance for deviant behavior has changed. “Our kids are being asked to do things that, at the risk of being called a puritan myself, are aberrant acts on the streets. They’re being asked to do different things, sex on the streets. That’s appalling.”
Ms. Miner said people should also see a connection between what goes on in the streets and the spread of HIV-AIDS. “When we’ve got people who are using kids and not having safer sex, they transmit back into their communities. There isn’t a community that is not at risk and people still walk around thinking they’re not,” she said.
She said that while street youth are being taught to negotiate for safer sex, “the reality is that if someone is offering you a lot of money, it’s temptation. All of us also have a streak that says we’re immortal and nothing’s going to happen to us. The other extreme is, ‘well I’m not going to live up to 25; might as well live dangerously and risk everything.”
Note: LOFT was formed in 1953 when two housing programs (for the elderly and indigent men) run by the Anglican diocese of Toronto joined to create a new, separately incorporated charity called Anglican Houses. The name was changed to LOFT Community Services to avoid confusion with government funding agencies that were not mandated to fund church-run organizations. There were also many potential clients reluctant to participate believing that the program was only meant for Anglicans and/or Christians. LOFT stands for Leap of Faith Together and it continues to have a strong Anglican connection. The diocese of Toronto remains a strong supporter and more than 70 parishes support LOFT either through the diocesan appeal, Faithworks, or through their own fundraising efforts.