The Saturday afternoon gatherings of “Gay and Grey” finds a group of men meeting in the basement lounge of Helmcken House to discuss issues about being gay and aging. They talk about serious stuff, but mostly they’re there to get in some much-needed social time.
“One thing that is big with any place is a community social space, especially when you’re dealing with health issues and forms of isolation,” said member Fraser Doke. To be able to interact with one another improves your health and improves the quality of life you have and this space very much does that.”
They meet in the lounge, which looks like a sleek gastown apartment with exposed brick, modern couches and a long wooden dinner table fit for a feast. First Nations art adorns the walls and the kitchen is outfitted with new appliances and white cabinetry.
“This lounge is a far cry from its previous form,” said Kim Stacey, Executive Director of the McLaren Housing Society, which operates Helmcken House.
She flips through old albums to find a photo of the lounge before Central City Foundation donors gave the Society $25,000 to update the room with new floors, paint, cabinetry and electrical. Stacey often halts at photographs of people who have passed on due to HIV/Aids over the 25 years the society has been offering subsidized housing to people battling the illness. Eventually, she finds a photo of the previously cheerless lounge, a dingy looking room with worn out couches and water-stained carpets.
“It stopped being a pleasant place to come and spend time in so it stopped being used as a community space for the building. Since the renovation we’ve been able to offer it out to people and it has really revitalized the building,” said Stacey.
Most of the residents at the McLaren Society have been HIV positive for 20 years or more and are beginning to age, which can be isolating for the healthiest people, let alone those with a serious illness.
Fraser is one of those residents and has been HIV positive for 31 years. He has watched a generation of friends pass on because of the illness. He has also battled his own health issues, including a recent liver transplant. Federal funding to his subsidised co-op was cut four years ago, so Fraser found himself in need of a home. In exchange for some cleaning, the McLaren Housing Society gives him a roof over his head and now, thanks to CCF donors, a functional and welcoming space to gather with like-minded friends.
“It’s very community oriented for a lot of people who are isolated and need to be together rather than apart,” said Fraser Doke.
Residents are not the only ones who have benefitted from the CCF-sponsored renovations. The room is also an office for the McLaren Housing Society administrators, which Stacey said has vastly improved their ability to stay organized and do their good work.