Miracle at Bleecker Street by Fiona Jackson

Note from Kenn: This article appears in the latest newsletter of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (links below). Bleecker Street Co-op has been my home since 1992.

1,000 pillowcases. 40 people. A co-op fence with a makeshift assembly line of pillowcases and volunteers with stencils and spray paint. Neighbours asking questions. An awe, a buzz and then: 1,000 pillowcases and a World AIDS conference.

Bleecker Street Housing Co-op member Brian Finch is a board member with the Canadian Treatment Action Council (CTAC) a group that advocates for people with HIV and AIDS.

About a week before the World AIDS Conference came to Toronto last August, Brian and a fellow CTAC board member heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper announce that he would not be attending this international event.

They wanted to make a statement – to show Harper and the world that they disapproved. But how? After brainstorming they hit on the idea of pillowcases emblazoned with a slogan: “Sleep in Steve? HIV never sleeps.” Brian designed and cut out the stencil but he still needed to transfer it onto the pillowcases… 1,000 pillowcases. They had a vision of 1,000 people with the pillowcases in front of the stage when the Minister of Health walked out to make an announcement to the world.

They spread the word to their network to get pillowcase donations. And they got them. But with only a few days left to finish the project, Brian was alone in his co-op unit with 1,000 pillowcases and a stencil. The anti-retroviral drugs he’d started a week earlier had kicked in and he was not feeling well.

He talked to his co-op’s manager, Diane Frankling. She told him she’d find some people to help out. And that’s when Bleecker Street Co-op performed its miracle.

“When Diane said ‘I’ll get some people to help you,’ I thought one or two but the whole co-op got involved. We had 40 volunteers, members and staff altogether. When I showed up Diane said ‘go back home and rest.’ They’d come up with an almost factory-like way to do the job.”

Because it was good weather, they set up the stencilling project outside. Brian didn’t go home; he stayed to help.

“There is a long fence and there were 15 or 20 pillowcases all pinned up to the fence and then people would come up with stencils and someone would spray paint and then we would collect them. The whole thing took us about eight hours.”

“The great part was people volunteered who I’ve never spoken to: white, black, mothers with children, it just became this real grassroots thing. It became an event and people in the neighbourhood would walk by and ask what was going on.”

With only days to go Brian had the finished pillowcases. Now he needed to distribute them. He went to an AIDS treatment march and friends helped him hand out the pillowcases and spread the word. They made an announcement about what they were trying to do and asked those who had the pillowcases to meet them at a specified gate of the centre where Health Minister Tony Clement, standing in for the Prime Minister, was set to make an announcement from the federal government.

But when Brian and his friends arrived on the event day, they realized that they’d given out the wrong gate number. Their dream of a block of protestors seemed dashed.

“It was flying by the seat of your pants. When we got on the ground floor we thought it wouldn’t work. That was when I decided that all the people in the co-op had worked too hard for this to fail, so I turned around and said in the biggest voice I could ‘we want to send a message to our prime minister that we are ashamed…will you help us?’ We had information sheets that we were handing out and I couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.”

When Tony Clement came out to speak, all the people with pillowcases stood up, but instead of a large block of people, there were large pockets spread out over the entire hall.

“It was a huge success; people brought them home as souvenirs, it got international recognition – a friend in Sweden saw it, it made the papers, and we put something up in the co-op. Everyone was so proud.”

Bleecker Street hosted its 11th Annual Doggie Pageant/Christmas event in December and Brian was there to announce that CTAC would make a donation to the co-op in appreciation of all their help: They gave $250 to “Pete’s Pet Fund,” a fund for anyone who has pets and has an emergency where they are unable to afford their vet bills. CTAC also made a small donation to the staff Christmas party.

“Bleecker Street is very forward thinking,” says Brian. “There are a lot of programs to help support people, like our computer learning centre, summer day camp, and social events all the time, and of course providing homes to people with HIV and AIDS and other conditions. It’s really exceptional.”

Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada Newsbriefs National Edition March 2007 Vol.15, No.1

Newsbriefs is published by the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada. Material may be copied. Please credit CHF Canada.

Full article, with pictures, on pages 4 and 5 here

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