It’s a warm, homey environment – a place well-used and well-loved.

The 601 Outreach is the home of AIDS Saskatoon and the virtual home for many of their clients. There’s a central meeting area filled with couches, a television and computer, and a kitchen that often emits delicious smells. But the heart of the place is the staff, who are quick with a smile, a greeting and an ear to listen to those who need help or just to share.

the 601 Outreach building

601 Outreach is the home of AIDS Saskatoon

Every day at AIDS Saskatoon is different from the next; what staff do in a day very much depends on who walks in the door and what they need, said Jason, the Support Services Coordinator at AIDS Saskatoon.

On any given day, he could be at the hospital working intensively with a patient to engage them with services they might not even know were available. He could be in court if a client needs court services. He could be driving people to and from appointments or at the office helping someone fill out an application for a disability subsidy.

“When we talk to folks, we really let them know what the program involves, so they can make the decision for themselves whether they want to get involved. Often times, we have multiple conversations before they’re ready to engage,” Jason said. “But we find it’s very worthwhile taking the time, because these are big decisions they’re making about their lives and if they’re not ready, it can be a negative experience.”

Jason and his colleagues help with application forms because some of their clients qualify for things like the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID) program but don’t know how to fill out the paperwork, or feel uncomfortable divulging all the information that’s required.

Many times, people with disabilities who are lacking support don’t want to talk about the challenges they are facing or have become accustomed to living with their disability, Jason explained.

“They’re used to having chronic back pain, so they don’t think it’s a weird condition to have,” he said. “Or they are used to not being able to keep down food – they don’t think that’s an issue. Or they’re used to not sleeping.”

The staff at AIDS Saskatoon talks to their clients about the problems they might be encountering in order to help them access other services.

“Our main role is to keep people engaged in services, if they want those services,” Jason noted. “Sometimes it’s tough to take a step back and let them make the choice about their life, but it’s very important that we do that because they should be in charge of their own lives.”

Transportation is a big barrier their clients face. AIDS Saskatoon has three vehicles in the community to help clients get to their appointments. If for some reason they are unable to get them where they need to go themselves, they give their clients bus tickets.

“It’s such an issue – transportation – especially in the winter,” Jason said.

The needle exchange that’s located at the Drop-In Centre provides an opportunity for individuals to talk more specifically about challenges they may be experiencing.

“That’s actually the time people are most open and honest with us and talk about what’s going on with them,” he said.

This is when they can encourage people to access medical assistance or counselling, but often just listening to what their clients have to say can make a difference.

“You have to pick and choose your moments when you support people, because sometimes they just want to talk. That’s important, especially when you’re feeling isolated and alone, like HIV can make you feel,” Jason noted. “Sometimes we have to recognize that when they’re talking to us they’re not wanting us to solve their problems. They just want us to hear them.”

The respect they show their clients makes a big difference, especially for the vulnerable people they work with – those in jail, in hospital, people with addictions issues or those involved in the street. The people at AIDS Saskatoon don’t try to run their clients’ lives; they deal with people who can make their own decisions, and they treat them that way.

“It’s tough to see people make hard choices in their life, but they should be in charge of their lives,” Jason said.

Because of this attitude, their clients respect them, which can lead to deeper conversations and uncover underlying issues. That allows AIDS Saskatoon to direct their clients to further services they might need.

Knowing what community services are available helps keep the staff engaged with their clientele – for example, they can refer someone to a specific counsellor or physician they feel could meet their needs. Getting the right fit can help someone stay engaged with the system, which is AIDS Saskatoon’s first goal.

Jason and his colleagues also work with other service providers who have built up relationships with their clients. Having these agencies supportive of each other and connected makes the client’s experience better, Jason believes.

“We just need to make sure we maintain those community connections, because the silo mentality doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s refreshing to be in a field where people are very connected with other agencies and making sure we’re all working together. That’s been a big aspect of why Saskatoon has been successful in dropping the (HIV) rate.”

There remains a stigma about HIV/AIDS in most communities, Jason added, so more education is needed.

It would be helpful, he said, to have the capacity to have people within a community teach each other, especially in remote northern and reserve communities, so it’s not a southerner or city person coming in from the outside.

“You want to build up that capacity within the community. I think that’s something that could definitely be worked on, and it’s hard because there are so many small towns, northern towns and reserves that are quite isolated. I think it would be worthwhile for the province to invest in building up capacity for things like methadone too,” he said.

His job, which he called “intense,” is very rewarding.

“There are a lot of downs, but there are a lot of ups too,” he said.

While the downs can wear on Jason, what gives him hope is that every once in a while someone comes into the office and says he made a difference for them, even if it’s for just a small thing. “The people we work with are probably the most grateful population I’ve ever had in my life. They let you know that you’re appreciated,” said Jason.

What also gives him hope is when he sees other people care – when community members come out to volunteer for a fundraiser, to drop off old shirts and pants, or to dedicate their whole life to the cause.

“That gives me the energy to keep giving,” he said.

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