If these walls could talk, they would tell the story of how “this building changed my life,” Valerie Nicholson says. HIV-positive, high on drugs and living on the streets, she groped her way up the stairs “because I couldn’t walk up” and staggered into a world of love and acceptance.
“It helped to turn my life around,” says Nicholson, one of more than 105 people who turned out on Nov 18 to say goodbye to the building she stumbled into 10 years ago at 1107 Seymour St.
The nondescript, two-storey downtown Vancouver structure that houses Positive Living BC on the second floor, where Nicholson sought solace, and AIDS Vancouver on the ground level, is scheduled to be replaced with a 15-storey high rise.
During the two-and-a-half-year construction period, Positive Living (formerly BC Persons with AIDS Society) will operate out of offices at 803 E Hastings St in the Downtown Eastside. The new building is expected to be ready by fall 2017.
Nicholson, now vice-president of Positive Living’s board of directors, had tears in her eyes at the end of Tuesday’s event, dubbed Steppin’ Out. “I love this place, but this move is stepping out into the future,” she says.
Dec 19, Positive Living’s last day in its old building, means closure for a whole generation of people who’ve come through these doors, board chair Wayne Campbell says. “We’ll miss the central location, and it [the temporary site on Hastings Street] will be a tighter fit, but when we reopen on Jan 12, we will have the same quality of services,” he says.
Campbell, like Nicholson, has his eyes on the future $28.5 million facility and the prospect of expanding the 48 programs now offered to the organization’s 5,500 members across the province. The 11 top floors will provide 81 social-housing units, and, Campbell notes, “we are negotiating with the city to have one of those floors for HIV-positive seniors.”
The ground level will house a lobby and retail space, including Polli and Esther’s Closet, which provides donated clothing and kitchen items to members. In the new space, the store will continue to offer free clothing to those in need but will also sell merchandise to the public to raise money for the socks and underwear fund. Positive Living and AIDS Vancouver will share the remaining four floors.
Although plans are still evolving, past board chair John Bishop says he’s excited about the free dental clinic planned for the ground level. “As our population ages, cardiovascular health becomes more important, and good dental hygiene has an impact on health,” he explains.
Eleven years ago, when Terry Howard, Positive Living’s director of community research, walked through the doors, HIV-positive people didn’t see a future. “They took their pills and went home, waiting to die,” he says. Now, he says, members “are starting to look for work and thinking of new careers.”
Staff, volunteers, members and well-known figures such as Dr Julio Montaner, Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs and Dr Joss de Wet, chair of the Red Ribbon Advisory Council, dropped by to acknowledge the old building. Some, in a final act of farewell, paused to write on the wall across from the reception area before stepping out for the last time.