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AIDS home in Gilsum closing due to mandates

Union Leader Correspondent

April 29. 2013 8:23PM

GILSUM - In its 25th year, AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region has revisited its original mission and decided to close The Cleve Jones Wellness House this July.

"Certainly, this is a bitter-sweet decision," said Susan MacNeil, agency executive director, on Monday.

In press release on Monday, board chair Damien Licata said, "In 1988, AIDS Services was founded as a community collaborative in order to address the AIDS pandemic. In our 25th year, we have rededicated ourselves to that mission by expanding our core work in two primary areas: enhanced HIV prevention, testing and outreach; and an anticipated increase in client caseload as new federal mandates require that all HIV persons must become affiliated with an AIDS service organization in order to access federal benefits."

In 2006, AIDS Services opened the Wellness House to provide housing for people living with HIV/AIDS and the hepatitis C virus. The 1830s three-story home set in Gilsum's village was named after the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Cleve Jones.

The home can serve up to seven residents at a time and over the past seven years was home to 27 men and women, including 12 people who had been incarcerated and whose release was predicated on them finding an appropriate living situation.

The Wellness House was a success, MacNeil said, creating a home for people who needed to get back on their feet, focus on treatment, bring their illnesses under control and get peer support.

"We wanted to dream big. Wellness House was the result of dreaming big. We believe that we will be judged by how we treat those that are most in need," MacNeil said.

At times, the organization, which moved its offices from Keene to the Wellness House, was at odds with the town of Gilsum, MacNeil said. Still, the organization came to have a good relationship with town residents and selectmen.

Before moving in the agency had a "contentious NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) battle with the town," according to AIDS Services. N.H. Legal Assistance represented the agency in the case that resulted in a negotiated zoning variance in order for the project to go forward.

The agency also persevered through two housing discrimination lawsuits in 2009 and 2012, which were successfully settled on behalf of the agency by the AIDS Law Project of GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders).

"We're dealing with a population that people have very negative stereotypes about," MacNeil said.

The goal of the Wellness House was to help people reclaim their lives so that they could eventually move out and live on their own, she said.

"There's so much stigma and discrimination that we have faced here in Gilsum, it's no wonder people's lives fall apart because they can't sustain with that negativity in their lives."

Because of a new federal mandate kicking in at the end of the year, all HIV patients are required to be affiliated with an AIDS service organization in order to receive federal benefits, MacNeil said.

So the agency's board made the tough decision to close the Wellness House to be better able to handle an increased client caseload.

"Our core mission was never to provide housing." MacNeil said.

The agency's client could go up 50 percent MacNeil said, from 26 people to 39.

"That's going to be a substantial consideration for us for us. We want to make sure we can meet the needs of the people walking through the door," she said.

Starting in July, the agency plans to continue to provide client case management and educational outreach from its new office space at 17 Dunbar St. in Keene.

The Wellness House is now home to 6 people. What made the decision to close easier for the board was knowing that five residents had already announced they had plans to move out.

One resident's subsidized housing application came through, while two residents who have struck up a friendship have decided to find an apartment and be roommates, she said.

The sixth resident is working with the agency to find a new home.

"There is nothing but a celebratory note to that," McNeil said, "We've all gotten over our initial sadness because we can only be happy.

Health Gilsum