It was in June 1981 that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In February 1987 Mother Teresa’s Brothers of Charity opened Calcutta House to serve AIDS patients in a rented five-bedroom Victorian house in West Philadelphia.

When Calcutta House begins its 25th year in February 2012, it can look back on much success in helping persons with AIDS deal with their illness and function in the world. Research that has led to new drugs has reduced the residential stay at Calcutta House to an average of 18 to 24 months.

The Brothers of Charity left Philadelphia in 1989, turning over the administration and operation of Calcutta House to volunteers. They established Calcutta House as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and formed a board of directors. Although the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has no formal connection to Calcutta House, a place on the board is reserved for a Sister of Mercy. Sister Constance Haughton, RN, R.S.M., currently fills that position.

“There was a heavy Catholic presence in establishing Calcutta House,” said Joe Tozzi, development and communications director. “Today we are non-denominational, but there were a lot of Catholic lay and religious involved in the early days.”

That connection still flourishes today. Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day and Calcutta House will mark the day with help from students from La Salle University. The students are getting together with the residents for three days of events:

Nov. 29 — La Salle students will be at Independence Place to kick off World AIDS Week with a gathering for the residents;

Nov. 30 — La Salle hosts the residents at a La Salle University basketball game on campus;

Dec. 1 — World AIDS Day — La Salle hosts Calcutta House residents on campus for Evensong, a prayer service for the residents and all who live with HIV/AIDS.

“La Salle has been a jewel to AIDS ministry,” said Kim McGrory, deputy executive director at Calcutta House since 2007 who has held seven administrative positions there since 1996. “The students at La Salle have been coming here for five-plus years.”

Twice a week, 30 to 40 student volunteers come in the evening. “They bring joy to the residents’ lives,” McGrory said. “They light up the house; they’re loud and boisterous. Calcutta House is very fortunate to have these volunteer helping hands.”

Capacity at Calcutta House is 27 residents, and they are split between two residences: Independence Place at 16th Street and Girard Avenue; and Serenity House, at 19th Street and Ridge Avenue. Serenity House opened in 2004 and was originally designed to accommodate those who were in the end-stages of AIDS.

“We were providing services to make the last days and weeks as comfortable and painless as possible, palliative care,” Tozzi said. “That type of population is diminishing. Some people are caught early enough and they got on pharmaceutical drugs that are prolonging life. Now we have a mixture, some in the last stages and others who are being treated and eventually will go on to independent living.”

People come to Calcutta House through referrals from hospitals and families who are not able to care for an individual. There are some who self-apply.

The goal of Calcutta House is to assist people who qualify because of a diagnosis of AIDS, and who don’t have the financial resources to get the care they need and who are oftentimes homeless, Tozzi explained. The average age of residents is 40s to early 50s, and 80 percent are men.

“We provide housing, health care and psycho-social services to help them get back to a healthy lifestyle with good food and nutrition,” he said. “We provide some type of training in literacy and learning computer skills. A number of the residents who come to us have mental health issues or substance abuse issues, and some have both.”
Through counseling the residents work toward recovery. There are a few residents who are not capable of living on their own, Tozzi said, and for those who can live independently, an ongoing challenge is a lack of affordable housing in Philadelphia.

He noted that funding for Calcutta House, which employs 34 full-time and part-time staff members, comes from the federal government through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare. Foundation and corporate funding also help with the $2.1 million-a-year budget.

“A number of parishes in the Archdiocese also support us,” Tozzi said.

The goal of Calcutta House never changes. “Our philosophy is getting people off the street,” he said. “Our philosophy is that housing is prevention.”

According to Tozzi, the rate of new HIV infections in Philadelphia “is five times the national average.”

“There is no indication that things have changed for the better,” he said.

The irony, Tozzi said, is that the public perception is that AIDS is no longer the threat it once was. “Life-prolonging drugs that people with AIDS take are helping them live longer,” he said. “It’s not a death sentence like it used to be. Some people think AIDS is cured.”

McGrory wants to change the perception that the battle with AIDS has been won.

“We don’t see people in terminal stages anymore,” she said. “We’ve gone from Calcutta Hospice to Calcutta House. People are living with the virus, not dying because of the virus. People are living with dignity and respect. The people we serve are human beings. They could be me or my family. Everybody, from the government on down, has the responsibility to assist and aid those who need it the most and have the least.”

For information on Calcutta House and donations, go to www.calcuttahouse.org.

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.