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Vanier man opens home to PWAs

First resident arrived in November

Steve Pilon sits in his white, taupe and pink kitchen. Behind him, a hutch gleams with china and trinkets. Sandy, a purebred Chihuahua, nips at his ankles.

After the death of his partner, Pilon decided to act on a longstanding dream of his: to run a residence for people living with HIV. Pilon sold his property in Kelowna, British Columbia and bought the three-bedroom house, which has a separate basement apartment, in Nov 2007.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time,” says Pilon wistfully.

Social workers have already placed two clients in his home.

The house is clean and comfortable, with televisions in every room and a shared space for tenants. A nurse by training, Pilon cooks most of the meals during the week and he’s been busy sprucing up the place with fresh paint and new furniture. He’s available to his residents 24 hours a day, and he’s hired a part time care worker to give him a couple of days off each week.

But, there’s a hitch. Pilon is quickly learning that there are a lot of hoops he has to jump through before his project — recently incorporated as St Cecile’s House — takes off.

“I’ve been stressed since I opened the place,” says Pilon, who took in his first client three months ago.

Looking at St Cecile’s books, it’s clear that the project is a labour of love. He’s losing $1,000 or more a month, with the province kicking in roughly $700 per resident through the Ontario Disability Support Program. That’s because they’re placed with St Cecile’s for room and board, not as residents of the full-fledged care home Pilon wants to run.

“I didn’t think they would just write a cheque,” says Pilon. “But I didn’t know it would be this difficult.”

So, as Pilon pours his retirement savings into St Cecile’s House, he’s been trying to make inroads with the city.

“I was told there was no money for new housing,” says Pilon, pointing at letters he’s written to the city. “It’s in great demand; why not help me to make it go?”

Connie Woloschuk from the city’s housing branch supplied the following information through its media relations department.

“Whether or not the tenants have disabilities, a rooming house is governed by a licensing bylaw,” she writes. “Tenants simply pay their rent out of their wages, social assistance or pensions. Sometimes, landlords are able to provide certain supports out of this income or they have funding from another source.”

“A ‘hospice’ is not a particular kind of housing unit, but, rather, a reference to the service provided,” she concludes.

Still, city subsidizes a number of hospices, retirement homes, and other kinds of care facilities in Ottawa.

Navigating the municipal and provincial funding streams is something that Jay Koornstra, the director of Bruce House, knows well. Bruce House receives municipal cash. But the money comes with layers upon layers of rules — from both the province and the municipality, covering everything from sanitation to the distribution of medication.

Koornstra says he can’t speak about St Cecile’s directly, since he hasn’t been there. But he says there’s a 200-person waiting list for housing at Bruce House. They support people in 25 units, from bachelors to four-bedroom apartments.

“Housing is one the greatest unmet needs of people living with HIV and AIDS,” he says. “Our housing offers supports, however even housing without support is incredibly important.”

Koornstra points out that people living with HIV often face additional barriers in finding a home. Issues include financial hardship, disability and discrimination on the part of landlords.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of having affordable, safe, secure housing,” he says.

Canada uses a patchwork of state-run, privately run and non-profit models to look after long-term care patients. Unlike St Cecile’s House, Bruce House is a registered charity, but both models rely on government funds, usually paid on a per-bed basis.

For now, Pilon’s hoping to fill the two remaining beds in the sunny back bedroom by the end of February. He says that should help defray some of the costs of running the house. He’s also dreaming of building an addition, to be able to take on more people living with HIV.

In the meantime, he’s not giving up on the governmental avenues, and he says it’s just a matter of time before staff at the city comes around.

“It’s going to work,” he says.