Greg Downer, service access manager

People with Heart

“My background is in hospitality,” says Greg Downer, PWA’s service access manager. “Everything from dishwasher to manager of a high-end restaurant. This is similar to 1,200 restaurants. Busy is an understatement. I work with the front desk, who do intake for everyone who comes in. There are about eight new clients a week and 14 service-access volunteers who can handle walk-ins. There are 25 providing for 2,500 individuals who access services annually. It’s constant. Someone is always asking questions or in need. Some we see once — they get on ODSP [the Ontario Disability Support Program] and are on their way; some come every day for coffee. They can drop the veil of HIV when they walk in here and be themselves. There is still so much stigma. We can’t even talk to clients if we meet them on the street — we have to protect confidentiality.”

Downer understands the clients’ reactions. “People who come in recently diagnosed — everything they’ve learned or know gets thrown out the window when it’s your own experience. I had an extra level of internalized stigma. My mother and aunts were public nurses; sex and sexuality were open subjects. I remember Aunt Jean pulling out the condoms or an array of them on a tray when I was 20. On some level I thought, ‘This should never have happened to me.’”

Downer first came to PWA in 2003 “at the worst point in my life. I became a client. I had lost my job, had a meth addiction and was isolated from friends and family. My case manager, who has since passed away, got me into a recovery program. I was too embarrassed to apply for social assistance. I couldn’t survive on ODSP, so I came to the food bank after a job interview — I was wearing a suit and tie. It was embarrassing and humbling with all the clients in line whose needs were even more. It’s worse at street level.”

Downer was still in recovery when he joined the Speakers Bureau. “It was only a year later, and the first question I got was ‘You’re HIV-positive — this is god’s punishment.’ I said, ‘If that’s all you’re leaving with, then I’ve failed you.’ But then someone comes up and you’ve connected, maybe only with one person, but you’ve challenged their position of who PHAs are. The evaluation cards often say, ‘You look like my brother or someone I might date.’ We wear our hearts on our sleeves — it’s an ongoing part of my therapy, a reminder of where I’ve been. I can just show.”

Downer insists his story isn’t unique. “The vast majority who work here have been through that informal cycle, but now it’s written into our strategic plan. It’s very rewarding. We facilitate possibilities. Living with HIV I felt my life was shattered, my dreams were gone. But I got engaged and figured out that I wasn’t alone.”


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Power, News, Toronto

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