As holiday parties go, this one was pretty subdued. Bittersweet, even.
New Jersey AIDS Services Inc. gathered friends, volunteers and supporters this week to toast the Eric Johnson House, closing its doors in Morristown after providing transitional housing for people with HIV/AIDS for a quarter-century.
“There are a lot of memories, sad and joyous ones. It’s been an important part of our lives,” said Ann Johnson, who traveled from Williamsburg, Va., for Tuesday’s event.
The Eric Johnson House, in the former rectory of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, is named for her son. The facility opened in 1994, four years after Eric died from AIDS. He was 32.
Some 300 people with HIV/AIDS have found temporary refuge and services at the Eric Johnson House over the years, said Laurie Litt, CEO of NJAS.
The trend now is for permanent housing for this population, however. With its lease coming due, NJAS opted to shift its focus and search for a larger space to provide services both for the HIV/AIDS- and LGBTQ communities, Litt said.
“We will continue to take the values of the organization and move forward, and continue to change lives and continue to make this world a better place, as best as we know how,” Litt told the gathering, against a backdrop of mounted newspaper stories, timelines and a wall-sized picture quilt from volunteers at Bethel AME Church.
One former resident said his life is better thanks to his stay at the Eric Johnson House in 2008-9.
“I relied on this place to be my support system,” said Tony, 53.
He was diagnosed with HIV in September 1999, after health officials came to his job and urged him to get tested because of a likely exposure.
It took a month for the diagnosis to sink in. Tony’s life spiraled out of control. He abused drugs. He lost good jobs.
Tony came to the Eric Johnson Johnson House from a drug recovery program in August 2008. The adjustment was tough at first. There were lots of rules, and personalities. But things improved before long.
“I learned to care about my health,” Tony said. He got help with his finances, and encouragement to attend church and 12-step programs.
Within a month, he landed a job. He moved out of the Eric Johnson House the next year, but returned to help as a part-time staffer. Full-time, he manages a department in a store. Tony is optimistic about the future of NJAS.
“You have to evolve and change with the times,” he said.
When Maria Schenk of Warren Township graduated from nursing school in 1984, AIDS “was exploding” and people were terrified, she said. Years later, she served one night per week as a house manager at the Eric Johnson House.
“I was never fearful of it,” she said. The residents just “wanted someone to listen to them.” Her memories are fond.
“It’s such a safe place for the residents. The people who run it are the kindest, warmest, most compassionate people,” said Schenk, accompanied by Patty Sichenzio, a former cook at the Eric Johnson House.
In the early days, when the stigma of HIV/ AIDS was more intense, Eric Johnson House residents stayed for two years—if they lived that long, Litt said.
Life-saving drugs called protease inhibitors arrived later in the 1990s, she said.
As families have grown more accepting of members with the virus, typical stays at the Eric Johnson House have gotten much shorter.
“To no longer need these transitional services speaks volumes about how far we’ve come,” said NJAS staff member Joseph Byrne.
Redeemer Rector Cynthia Black said she will miss the residents. Although NJAS was not a religious organization, Black considered it a ministry, just the same.
“This is very, very hard,” Black said of the farewell.
The church now seeks a new tenant for the 6,500-square-foot, 10-bedroom stone building in its backyard.
Ann Johnson and her late husband Bill were Redeemer parishioners until they moved away in 1999. But they often returned at Christmas, and Ann said she always looked forward to the warm welcome they received at the Eric Johnson House.
“It had a family atmosphere,” she said.
Eric Johnson worked at New York University. His partner, artist Luis Lugo, died of AIDS a year before him.
To overcome their fear of working with the HIV/AIDS community, early volunteers at the Eric Johnson House received “buddy training” at Hope House in Dover, recounted Ann, who was accompanied Tuesday by four of her children. A granddaughter, Chelsea Huesing, is an intern at NJAS.
Redeemer’s rector in 1994, Phillip Dana Wilson, made the rectory available as a transitional residence, so people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS could get back on their feet.
“He thought this would be a good use,” Ann Johnson said.