Catholic lay group runs Singapore's only shelter for abandoned and homeless people with HIV/AIDS.  

BEING DIAGNOSED WITH HIV/AIDS can sound like the death knell. Many People With HIV/AIDS (PWAs) go through long stages of denial and anger, are fearful, lonely and depressed. Apart from the fear of death, there is the presence of guilt, and fear of rejection and of the realities of coping with the financial, social and practical aspects of the disease.

Reaching out to abandoned, marginalized and destitute PWAs and their families, regardless of race, religion or social standing is an increasingly important and challenging task as the number of people with HIV/AIDS grows.

Catholic AIDS Response Effort (CARE), a lay apostolate ministry, was formed in 1992 for this mission. CARE was recently registered as a charity and is a member organization of the Catholic Social and Community Council (CSCC).

According to Ministry of Health statistics, the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases in Singapore has risen from two cases in 1985 to 3,060 cases at the end of 2006. However, the true prevalence rate is estimated to be two to four times higher.

Many people have the attitude that those who contract HIV/AIDS deserve it; that they must be homosexuals, promiscuous, drug addicts or sex workers. However, HIV does not discriminate. Of the 149 Singaporeans found to be infected between January and June in 2006, there were almost as many professionals (26) as the unemployed (29), twice as many heterosexuals (88) as homosexuals (39), and 88 were married people and 47 singles.

Like the "unclean" leper in the days of old, PWAs experience social stigma. Some have been shunned by friends and even family members. Some of the problems they face are:

- Loneliness and abandonment

- Discrimination at home andwork

- High medical cost

- Lack of family and/or peer support

- Lack of income/financial resources

- Low self-esteem and depression

- Multiple inflammation and diseases due to low resistance

- Little knowledge of God

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CARE set up a shelter programme to care for abandoned and homeless PWAs. At this shelter, the only one in Singapore, CARE tries to provide holistic and pastoral care and counselling support.

"The aim of this shelter is to provide temporary accommodation to PWAs while we work with the relevant bodies to rehabilitate and assist them to re-integrate back into society," said Michael A. Png, President of CARE. "This is important as many of those we work with face difficulties in securing jobs because of their condition, and have nowhere to go because of severed or strained ties with family members."

CARE engages the residents in activities such as:

- Pastoral care of PWAs

- Counselling of PWAs and family members

- Regular prayer and fellowship

- Befriending services (celebrate birthdays, accompany the sick on a medical appointment, etc.)

- Job-matching

- Financial assistance

CARE would like to upgrade the quality of care and services given to residents, said Mr Png. CARE plans include a rehabilitation programme consisting of physiotherapy, dietician assessment, counselling, recreational activities and provision for antiretroviral (ART) medicine, which is quite costly.

"We would also like to do more, such as reaching out to those PWAs outside of the shelter, and to provide follow-up support to those who have been discharged from the shelter, and to their families," explained Mr Png, "but we are limited in our abilities by our lack of resources and funds." He hopes that the community, especially the Catholic community, would lend its support.

He believes that more could be done to reach out to the broader community, especially to younger teenagers. Statistics show that there is more risky sexual behaviour in society among teenagers. In 2001, the number of teenagers diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, was 256. In 2005, it was 638.

Despite the troubling statistics and public perceptions, CARE believes that its role is not to judge but to love. "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt 25:40)

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