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Ottawa AIDS group opens doors to new home

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The AIDS Committee of Ottawa has moved into a new home and will soon be flinging the doors wide open in an attempt to fight stigma against the disease.

Now at 19 Main St., the group occupies the entire two floors of the 7,000-square-foot building, which allows for more counselling support, home-cooked meals, better programming and harm reduction services.

This move was the “last key piece of the puzzle” to growing as an organization and combatting the AIDS stigma, said Khaled Salam, the executive director of the ACO, which is largely provincially funded.

“For the longest time, our organization kind of existed in this small bubble,” he said. “We were engaging with other community activists, other community partners with similar organizational values, but not to the larger community, which is where, really, the stigma exists.”

The ACO faced that stigma in its hunt for a new home. It planned on moving down the street from its old location on Bank Street, but the new landlord revoked the keys last-minute after allegedly expressing concerns that the ACO’s clients might spread lice to other visitors. The ACO sued, alleging discrimination and Salam said the comittee is now “on the verge” of settling out of court.

On Dec. 1 – World AIDS Day – the group moved to 19 Main St. Apart from an open house on Feb. 9 that will include Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa-area MPPs as guests, the ACO will host tours for Doors Open Ottawa in June.

“We want to put ourselves on the map. We don’t want to hide within a small bubble anymore,” said Salam. “We want to become a mainstream organization in terms of being exposed to the larger community.”

In terms of square-footage, the Main Street space is only slightly bigger than the ACO’s old location. But it now allows the group to plant a community garden outside, plan more health programming and host barbecues. There’s also a therapy table for massage or chiropractic treatments, a separate entrance for harm reduction supplies, a big kitchen and multiple counselling rooms.

With a big communal table, wide windows, computers and leather chairs (including a couple of massage chairs) the ground floor feels like a comfortable living room.

That’s an intentional throwback to the ACO’s early beginnings in a living room during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

“It was making a statement as a place about living and not just about dying,” said Salam. “It was important for us to capture that hominess and coziness and making sure that it was not institutional.”

The open house will be Feb. 9 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 19 Main St.

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