Proposed closure of Cheltenham Place ‘devastates clients’

Words by Nijole Naujokas

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With a new government comes a new State Budget, this time from the Liberal Party led by Stephen Marshall. Riding into power on a wave of promises to “get the budget back on track”, the July budget had some unpleasant surprises for the health sector and its users. One was the defunding of medication for Narcolepsy, creating the situation where some sufferers of the neurological disorder cannot afford the medication to stay awake due to increased cost. Another of these was the announcement that Cheltenham Place, a respite centre for people living with HIV, would shut its doors, with the claim that “HIV is now a manageable illness and can be looked after with other services.”

The news of this closure has shocked many in the health sector. With a modest budget of just over $400,000 per year, Cheltenham Place has, by its own calculations, saved the health budget over $800,000 a year through keeping its clients out of public hospitals and reducing pressure on the already strained emergency services.

Speaking to Anthea, the manager of Cheltenham Place, it’s clear how worried her and her staff are about this proposed closure.

“Contrary to what’s been reported, we don’t just work with homeless clients. We offer a safe place for clients, without stigma or judgement that some might face in their community. We offer mental health support, and we also cater for clients coming from the country. These specialised services are still very much needed for people living with HIV. I’ve had clients devastated at the news of the closure; two have already stopped taking their HIV meds as they ‘don’t see the point’ of continuing, it’s a form of self-harm. This will just create more health problems as managing medication is one way the virus becomes less transmissible.”

It’s not just staff and current clients who are distressed at the proposed closure. I spoke to Kerry at a community lunch for people living with HIV. Having relied on the service in the past, his face visibly animates when he speaks of Cheltenham Place, and it’s clear how much the place means to him.

“It was like walking into my grandmother’s house. The concern from workers at Cheltenham place was always about care for the clients. I used to take my two cats there…where else can I do that?”

From the people I speak to at the lunch, it is clear that Cheltenham Place is not just a health service. It is a place of belonging and community, a safe space that mentally supports those who still face the stigma of the HIV virus. Despite the leaps in treatment, it is still a serious disease requiring specialised treatment, and sufferers still face discrimination and judgement.

Sources say that the good work of Cheltenham Place is acknowledged by SA Health itself, and that the closure has “nothing to do with performance…this is a purely political decision to close. The government want to be seen as saving the budget money.” What the Marshall government, and Health Minister Stephen Wade fail to see, is that the closure of support services is a short sighted saving. In reality, Cheltenham Place saves the health budget thousands by avoiding emergency hospital admissions for its clients. Considering the current ambulance ramping crisis at many of our major hospitals, surely anything that reduces pressure on our bursting health system should be retained.

For people like Kerry and others, the service offers a support rarely found in other areas. Despite the bleak prospect of closure, Cheltenham Place is not done yet. A groundswell of community support has created an online petition to stop the closure. The South Australian Rainbow Advocacy Alliance (SARAA), is pleading for the respite centre to stay open and funding to stay. Meanwhile, clients and staff alike wait anxiously for salvation, hoping the caring community they’ve created won’t disappear.

To sign the petition to keep Cheltenham Place open, please go to this link:

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