The AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) is on the move. After 11 years in the Village, the organization, which provides education, prevention and support services for people in Ottawa living with HIV and AIDS, will be setting up in a new, two-storey building located at 19 Main St in Sandy Hill. The move comes after a nearly two-year wait in which the ACO struggled to find a space that would suit their needs.
In 2012, the Ministry of Health and Long Term-Care mandated a safety audit of the ACO’s current space at 251 Bank St. One of the recommendations to come out of the audit was that the centre move to a new location. Executive director Khaled Salam says the ACO originally planned to move in October 2013 and had secured a location across the street at 240 Bank. But on what was supposed to be their first day of occupancy, he says, they were told by the building’s landlords that they would not be able to move in.
“My number-one concern at that point was to ensure that ACO had a home because our lease here had ended,” Salam says. After negotiating with the managers of 251 Bank St, the organization switched to a month-to-month rental agreement that enabled them to stay put while they searched for a new home.
Salam says that while the ACO hoped to remain in the Village, they weren’t able to find a space in the area. “Unfortunately, it just was not a viable option for us for a few different reasons.” Rising rents in the Village, which have affected other businesses, were a primary concern. “The spaces that we looked at were too expensive.”
The highly specialized needs of the ACO were also a factor. Salam says the organization needs a space where they can set up a drop-in centre, as well as kitchen and lounge facilities. They also need a space where they can provide harm-reduction services, including their partnership with the City of Ottawa’s needle-exchange program.
While they weren’t able to remain in the Village, Salam says the ACO’s new Sandy Hill site is well suited to their needs and still close to downtown. “It’s literally a 20-minute walk from our front door here to the front door over there,” he says, though he acknowledges that the location may be more difficult for downtown clients to reach. “It might create a bit of an accessibility barrier for some people initially, for sure, but it also opens up accessibility for a lot of people in other parts of Ottawa.”
In an effort to remain as accessible as possible to their downtown clients and those who may have mobility challenges, Salam says the ACO is in talks with the city to potentially reroute the number five and 16 buses so that they stop right in front of the new building, much like the current setup in front of the Good Companions Centre on Albert Street.
“We’re still waiting to hear back, but the city has been great at letting us know that it’s something that they’ll consider,” Salam says. There is also a Transitway station nearby on the University of Ottawa campus, about a 12-minute walk away, according to Google Maps.
Another accessibility issue at the new building has to do with its lack of an elevator. To address this, Salam says that client services, including the food pantry, counselling and wellness services, and the needle exchange will be on the main floor. “That’s the way we have been able to circumvent the challenge for now. Our long-term goal is to have an elevator put in.”
He says the ACO plans to apply for grants to cover the cost of elevator installation once they’re established in the space. All the administrative functions, including staff offices, will be on the building’s second floor.
Salam says the ACO’s existing community partnerships, including with the Centretown Community Health Centre (which runs Gay Zone Gaie), will remain intact and unchanged. In addition, the new location provides potential partnership opportunities with organizations like the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and the SFUO Pride Centre. “We have a lot of visions in mind, in terms of community education in particular and community engagement, once we move into the new neighbourhood,” he says.
After the move, Salam says they plan to hold open houses and other events to get to know their new neighbours. “We are aware that when an AIDS organization moves into a new neighbourhood of people who are not aware of what you do, who you serve, sometimes from a place of not knowing, there can be some fear of the unknown.” He says they also plan to canvass the neighbourhood to let people know who they are and what they do.
As far as the new location goes, Salam says that having their own building, on their own lot, offers a great deal of potential. Their proximity to outdoor parks and the Rideau Canal means that outdoor programming will be possible — something that hasn’t been as easy from their Bank Street location. He says the idea of a community garden has been broached, as well as walking groups and picnics. “There’s a tremendous amount of excitement, and I feel that [the] new space will give us a lot of creative freedom that we don’t have now being in a multi-tenant building downtown.”
The ACO has a three-month window in which to complete renovations at 19 Main St. Their rental agreement began on Sept 1, and the construction is slated to finish in mid-November. “We’re aiming to move in there at the end of November so that we can actually have our doors open on Dec 1 for World AIDS Day,” Salam says.
The plan is for the centre to be closed for two to three days at the end of November for the move, to keep the disruption as minimal as possible. Salam says that the ACO will be closed Thursday, Nov 27 and Friday, Nov 28 to do the physical move and that staff will take the weekend to get organized internally before reopening on the Monday.
“I hope people realize how important space is,” he says. “When people are able to be in a safe space and a healthy space, that has a direct impact on their overall health.” Despite the initial hurdles, he says ACO staff are looking forward to being in their new home and are excited about the opportunities it will provide. The organization has signed a five-year lease, and Salam says the plan is to renew for another five years after that. “We are hoping that once people get over the initial hump of us being a little bit removed that things should flow smoothly.”