Casey House aims to end the stigma around HIV/AIDS

The hospital will open Canada's first HIV-positive eatery to help combat negativity.

While much has changed about the perception of HIV/AIDS since the ’80s, the stigma around it has, in many cases, persisted.

It’s a problem that Toronto’ Casey House is addressing as Canada’s only stand-alone hospital for people with HIV/AIDS. To coincide with the launch of its new facility last month, the hospital is running a campaign to spark conversation and hopefully end the stigma around the disease.

At the heart of the campaign is a pop-up restaurant – the country’s first eatery served by HIV-positive individuals – open Nov. 7 and 8.

On Oct. 25, Casey House officially moved into its new 58,000-square-foot hospital, effectively doubling its annual patient capacity to around 650 people. (It previously occupied a 10,000-square-foot hospice.) It timed the release of its recent Smash Stigma survey, conducted in partnership with Leger Research Intelligence Group, to coincide with the announcement.

Few could contest the importance of Casey House’s campaign after reading the results.

Completed by more than 1,600 people between Oct. 10 and 13, Smash Stigma revealed that nearly 40% of Canadians wouldn’t knowingly eat food prepared by someone who is HIV positive. Of all the age groups surveyed, millennials and seniors sixty-five years and older were the most likely to refuse such an offer. And this, despite research proving that the disease cannot be transmitted through food preparation or sharing.

The study also found that 79% of millennials would be “nervous or ashamed to share the health news openly.”

Joanne Simons, Casey House CEO, says that patients at the hospital experience stigma and isolation on a daily basis, so while the Smash Stigma survey results were “staggering,” they weren’t all that surprising to the organization.

To maximize the impact of Casey House’s move and survey, the organization is hosting “June’s,” a pop-up restaurant named after Casey House founder and Canadian activist June Callwood. According to Simons, the event is intended to make people think differently about the disease by having 14 HIV-positive cooks serve up dishes under the guidance of Chef Matt Basile of Fidel Gastro.

For the campaign, Toronto agency Bensimon Byrne has offered its services on a pro bono basis, with approximately half the work being done by Narrative, its sister PR agency. It has been running a social and digital campaign since the opening on Oct. 25.

A video spot promotes the eatery while not shying away from the reality: “Being HIV positive, I’ve been called a lot of things,” one of the chefs says. He is joined by other voices sharing words like “unloveable,” “reckless” and “untouchable.” The spot ends on a word none of them ever expected to be called: chef.

Joseph Bonnici, partner and creative director at Bensimon Byrne, says the agency timed the pop-up restaurant to leverage the opening of Casey House’s new facility, which was poised to receive a lot of attention.

So far, the social campaign has unfolded as many might expect.

Social media brings out the best and worst of human nature, says Bonnici, and some online comments about the pop-up have inadvertently reinforced the stigma around HIV/AIDS. But, from what he has seen, “almost 100% of the time, when those comments come up in social media, people have pounced on them. Not us. We’re not the ones having to do it.” Rather, it’s people within the commentator’s network that usually do.

Bonnici says the campaign is “about generating as much conversation as possible, and letting the community sort it out itself, and sort of coming in with the knowledge that we have [through Casey House] about what the facts are around this disease.”