The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that approximately 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and 21 percent of those people do not know they are infected. The CDC also predicts that the number of people with HIV will increase by more than 50,000 each year.
Calcutta House has been around for more than 20 years to provide housing and care for Philadelphians who have received an HIV or AIDS diagnosis –a much needed service in a city with a higher rate of HIV infection when compared to the national average.
An estimated 114 of every 100,000 Philadelphians were infected with HIV in 2006 compared to the national average of 22.8, according to the Department of Public Welfare. The majority of new infections in the city are occurring in men and non-Hispanic blacks.
The organization, founded by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Brothers, once provided care for terminally ill residents in a quaint home in University City with only five bedrooms. It has come a long way since then.
The organization has since moved out of the University City row home and into two separate facilities in North Philadelphia.
The program provides 24-hour comprehensive care to men and women who have received the daunting diagnosis.
Most residents were once homeless and found through social services, hospitals or other community outreach programs.
Care provided by Calcutta House includes a social services department, nursing staff and substance abuse counseling.
Residents are served three nutritious meals a day through a partnership with the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance. Dietitians at MANNA developed a standard HIV and heart-healthy menu for Calcutta House residents and also provide nutrition classes.
Both locations also organize daily activities designed to improve residents’ physical and mental health and prepare them for independent living.
“About 70 percent of the residents will move in here and – in an average of 18 months – will leave here and live independently,” said Executive Director Matthew Teter.
Calcutta House provides job training and placement for residents ready to leave organization housing, and many former residents continue to use social services and medical assistance provided by the organization.
“While many residents move on to independent living, some stay at Calcutta House permanently due to certain health conditions that prevent them from living on their own,” Teter said.
The organization offers transportation to outside activities to help residents live their lives to the fullest, said Teter.
“Many of our residents are very active,” Teter said. “That’s the interesting challenge of serving individuals with an AIDS diagnosis because many times they’re younger than the general population that you’d find in a general-care home or assisted living.”
“Not every day is a bad day,” he continued. “Many days are good days where they can go out…to the local market or go to an activity on their own. We encourage that.”
The two Calcutta House facilities – located at 1601 W. Girard Ave. and 1221 N. 19th St. – are within three blocks of one another, making the organization a significant presence in Francisville.
Although Calcutta House strives to be what Teter called “good neighbors,” it also walks a fine line between maintaining a positive presence in the community and protecting residents’ privacy.
“It’s a delicate situation with the neighborhood,” said Teter. “We want the neighborhood to like us…We also don’t like to put big signs up and invite a lot of people – because this is a home for our residents.”
“While we’ve made a lot of progress in the general public’s understanding of HIV and AIDS, there is still a stigma attached to having a diagnosis of HIV,” he continued. “So, we want our residents to be comfortable.”
Many residents don’t know the details about the care Calcutta House provides, but they agreed the organization is a friendly neighbor.
“I’ve never heard anything negative about it,” said Natalie Ray, a lifelong resident of the North Philadelphia area. “It was always something I was told was positive, but I’ve never gone in there to see what’s going on.”
Calcutta House residents do interact with community members, Teter said. But the facility provides what he called a “tight-knit group” for residents who prefer to spend their time with others facing the diagnosis.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Teter. “And so far the organization has done a great job.”
Since its inception, the organization has served more than 400 residents from Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. At any given time, it serves 27 people in comprehensive care and four in independent living.
Calcutta House will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year and hopes to expand its housing programs as funds are made available, Teter said.
“We hope to continue our relationship with people in the neighborhood but also maintain the confidentiality and make our residents as comfortable as possible in their home,” said Teter.