After 23 years of service, a Victoria organization that helps people with HIV/AIDS will close on March 31 due to funding cuts.
“It’s very sad, especially for our mobile needle exchange,” said TJ Furlani, chair of the Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Service Society. “We’re very low barrier. So, 50 hours a week someone could call and we’d bring them needles — no judgment. We just don’t want sharing [and spreading of HIV and blood-borne illnesses].”
The organization relied on annual funding from Island Health of about $170,000 to operate its core needle exchange program. It was founded in 1991 as a respite and community support service for people living with HIV/AIDS.
As medications and life quality improved, VARCS focused more on harm-reduction. It employs two staff.
Island Health, which is restructuring harm-reduction services in Victoria, called for project proposals last June. VARCS and AIDS Vancouver Island both submitted proposals for mobile needle exchange services.
The proposal from AIDS Vancouver Island better fit the new mandate, Island Health spokeswoman Suzanne Germain said.
“There was more flexibility and more supports,” she said.
VARCS was notified its contract would not be renewed last October.
AIDS Vancouver Island will receive an additional $262,000 in overall funding — to a total of $714,000 — from Island Health for harm reduction services and an intensive case management team. The organization will take over the mobile needle exchange at reduced hours; it will offer the service at one of two downtown health hubs with additional supports.
Mobile services will target Sidney and the West Shore.
“We have a responsibility as a publicly funded agency to make sure money gets best-used,” said Germain. She noted safe injection supplies are also distributed on foot downtown by the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users.
Craig Dales, executive director of the Vancouver Island Persons Living with HIV/AIDS Society, said the closing of VARCS will constitute a huge loss to the community.
“People access services differently. Some might not go to other places,” he said. “My worry is that they will lose their voice and slip through the cracks.”
He noted that the three main organizations who served the HIV/AIDS community have all been operating for more than 20 years, successfully serving different clientele, and did not replicate services provided by others. He also said his organization will take on Positively Connected, the support group that has been operated by VARCS.