Vancouver Native Health says funding change will likely mean agency loses longtime HIV program

A Downtown Eastside clinic designed for Indigenous people living with HIV/AIDS is in danger of losing funding to another nonprofit

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      For almost 20 years, Indigenous people living with HIV/AIDS have visited 441 East Hastings Street for medical care, social services, and often just a warm meal.

      It’s a program called Positive Outlook, and it has operated there under the Vancouver Native Health Society (VNHS) since almost as long as executive director Lou Demerais can remember. But it looks like that’s about to end, Demerais told the Straight.

      “It appears that Vancouver Coastal Health Authority [VCH] has decided to take away funding that we’ve been getting for our drop-in centre for people who are HIV-positive,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re going to do an RFP [request for proposals]. Presumably, they’ve found interest from other agencies who might be able to provide these services better than us.”

      VCH confirmed the news but declined to grant an interview.

      VNHS has received $1.1 million from VCH each year for its Positive Outlook program. According to the nonprofit’s charity filings, losing that money will amount to a 16-percent reduction in total annual revenue.

      VNHS’s contract for the Positive Outlook program expires on March 31. Demerais said that is normal; Positive Outlook has always run on annual contracts, but every year the contract has been renewed without issue. Now, after March 31, Demerais said that it’s all but certain the program will move to another service provider.

      “What we don’t understand is why they [VCH] are doing it,” he said. “They’ve never given us an explanation as to why it’s necessary at this point. So we think there is some other motivation behind it.”

      Demerais recalled the program’s origins. “It was back in the ‘90s,” he began.

      Those years, deaths attributed to HIV/AIDS in Vancouver rose from 86 in 1989 to a peak of 203 in 1994, according to the B.C. Vital Statistics Agency. Overdose deaths soared during the same period, prompting the regional health authority to declare a public-health emergency.

      “So we started Positive Outlook in response to the pandemic that was sweeping through the neighbourhood in the 1990s,” Demerais continued. “Overall, it helped prolong people’s lives, got them to live longer. We’ve had people now who have been with us since the ‘90s who are still clients of the program.”

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      Demerais said that at this point, VNHS doesn’t know if it will file a response to VCH’s request for proposals. He said it has yet to be issued, and their contract is up in a month, leaving little time to organize a submission.

      “We think they’re waiting until the last minute to weaken our chances of being able to re-apply,” he said. “We’re not exactly sure what they will require that might be new.”

      Demerais argued VNHA’s Positive Outlook program is unique in the ways it’s tailored to the Downtown Eastside’s large Indigenous population.

      “What we’ve been trying to do lately is meet some of the needs of people who had experienced the residential-school program,” he noted. “We’ve tried to bring some elders into the mix so that they would have someone to talk to about some of their deeply seated psychological difficulties, in a kind of traditional way. We’ve been working on that and we’re at a point now where we wanted to implement more of the traditional elder services. Whether or not we’re going to be able to do that, we’re beginning to doubt.”