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Calcutta House Celebrates 25 Years Housing People With HIV

by Alexander Vuocolo
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 18, 2013

Set between Philadelphia's ubiquitous three-story row homes, Calcutta House draws the eye with its colorful facade and winding access ramp. But the building's exterior, though conspicuous, does little to convey what is going on inside.

This is exactly the point, according to Kim McGrory, Deputy Executive Director of Calcutta House. The facility, which provides housing and care for individuals with AIDS, is meant to feel like any other home.

This has always been the objective of Calcutta House, to give aid, comfort and community to a disenfranchised population. But the need for a welcoming and less "institutional" environment has only increased as the nature of the disease itself has changed.

"Who has the virus, when they get care, how they respond to medication, all of that has changed in the past 25 years," said McGrory.

Now, as the organization celebrates its 25th anniversary, it finds itself in a state of transformation as rapid as the disease. Residents are staying longer and fewer individuals are seeking the organization's aid as better care is administered elsewhere. Additionally, the demographics that are served have changed from predominately male and homosexual to "people from all walks of life and at various stages of the disease," she said.

In 1987, Calcutta House was just a five-bedroom row home in West Philadelphia. Mother Teresa's Brothers of Charity founded the organization with the goal of providing comfort and dignity to individuals with end-stage AIDS. At the time, a comfortable place to die was considered the best that could be done for the disease.

The original row home had just five bedrooms and catered primarily to gay males.

"It was a home for men specifically," McGrory told EDGE. "Women were not admitted to Calcutta House until 1996."

That same year, the organization closed its location in West Philadelphia and moved to Northwest Philadelphia along Girard Avenue. The move was used as an opportunity to not only expand capacity but also to create from the ground up a relaxing and home-like environment. There are now 31 rooms available, a commercial kitchen, a large deck and a community room.

"What we’re finding is that when residents are referred here, their need immediately is housing. It’s really not medical. Very rarely, now, do get anyone that is on their deathbed," said McGrory.

As a result, Calcutta House has shifted its focus to more vulnerable populations, such as homeless, mentally ill and inveterate drug abusers. In a way, this policy upholds the organization’s goal of serving the most disenfranchised individuals, but it has also means less funding and fewer referrals.

Hunter Selman, a former intern and volunteer for Calcutta House, wrote that "in recent years, Calcutta House has been understaffed and struggling to maintain the amount of contact they would like with their donors and supporters."

Last spring, Selman lent his design skills to help re-brand Calcutta House and increase its visibility in the community.

"Calcutta House is a non-profit organization that exists because of the public’s generous donations," said Selman. "They do not have the large advertising/media budgets that other businesses possess. It needs the public’s continuous support, so it must be appropriately advertised."

In 25 years, Calcutta House has gone from serving a population that was barely acknowledged to one that is increasingly getting better treatment and recognition. During that time, it grew from an uncertified housing unit for males dying of a misunderstood disease to a non-profit, volunteer-driven institution with two facilities.

It remains the only organization to provide both care and housing specifically to individuals with AIDS.

What happens next for the organization will, of course, be dependent on a disease that is changing drastically. But McGrory maintains that Calcutta House will be adaptive regardless of what is next.

"Treatment is working for a lot of people, which is a good thing," said McGrory. "We sort of want to go out of business in that regard."

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