Schenectady County

Schenectady Damien Center changes hands

Schenectady residents living with HIV and AIDS will have more community resources than ever this fal

Schenectady residents living with HIV and AIDS will have more community resources than ever this fall, when the Albany Damien Center launches a satellite center in a familiar space.

The Albany center was founded in 1990 as one of the first AIDS drop-in centers in the nation. It opened a branch in Schenectady the next year, followed by a branch in Troy the year after that. Funding challenges in 1994 prompted a takeover of those branches by separate organizations. Schenectady Inner City Ministry assumed operations of the Schenectady branch and Troy Area United Ministries took over the Troy branch.

Two decades later, the Albany Damien Center is ready to take back control of the Schenectady center, which has had its own struggles over the years, from relocations to an attic fire to a suspension of services two years ago.

“This has been in the works for a while,” said SICM’s executive director, the Rev. Phil Grigsby. “Over the years, we talked about recombining the centers. It seemed the right time, given the changing face of AIDS and the Albany Damien Center has many best practices that we don’t have the resources to do here.”

When SICM suspended services two years ago, it was still able to offer meals at the site and link people to other support services in the area, like Ellis Medicine, Mohawk Opportunities and the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York. But it was no longer able to offer the kind of comprehensive support the other Damien Centers could.

Under the new arrangement, SICM will still own and maintain the center at 615 Nott St., a nondescript building across from Union College. But the Albany Damien Center will bring in its own staff and array of programs, ranging from prevention counseling and nutritional education to vocational rehabilitative training and even pet care for those afraid to leave animals home alone while they seek treatment.

To help get everything up and running again, Ellis Medicine President and CEO Jim Connolly on Thursday presented a check for $15,000 to the Albany Damien Center.

“We’re starting slow, and we hope to grow,” said Albany Damien Center Executive Director Perry Junjulas.

A fire that ripped through the Albany center in August 2013 forced its temporary relocation to First Lutheran Church in Albany. At the time, Junjulas said he even thought about relocating the whole operation to Schenectady.

“Space-wise, we just wouldn’t have fit,” he said.

But a bigger Schenectady space could be in the works. As part of its long-range plan, the Damien Center is building a new Albany center that includes not just space for headquarters and programs, but also housing for 22 people living with HIV/AIDS who are unstably housed. This should open by December 2015. The hope, Junjulas said, is to do the same thing in Schenectady.

“Safe, affordable housing is the No. 1 need for persons living with AIDS right now,” he said, “so this is definitely an area the Damien Center is heading in.”

Because of the Troy center’s proximity to Albany, Junjulas said it’s less likely they would take over that branch, but they are looking at the possibility of opening centers elsewhere in the region. Among the possible sites for new centers are Amsterdam, Glens Falls and Hudson — all cities with a high concentration of individuals living with AIDS.

Schenectady’s biggest need right now, he said, is raising awareness of preventative measures among its population of young, sexually active gay men of color.

“Part of our dream is having new HIV infections become rare,” he said. “And if they do happen, we want that person to get the right care fast, so they can live a full life.”

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