AIDS agency recovering from alleged internal crisis
by Matt Comer and David Stout . Q-Notes staff
CHARLOTTE — Over the past two and a half decades the demographics of the HIV/AIDS epidemic have changed. From a killer that initially ravaged the gay male community, AIDS is now a health crisis that affects men and women, gay and straight, younger and older and all races — if not with equal disregard.
Responses from the government, support agencies and activist groups have also changed over the years. Awareness has increased but funding has been cut; more people know someone who is affected by HIV but fewer seem to be involved. AIDS service organizations such as Charlotte’s Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP) have faced great difficulties keeping up with the transformation.
At a time when there were no resources available, MAP was founded in 1985 by six gay men. They were driven by a desire to counter the “gay plague” that was destroying their community, partners and friends. MAP focused on raising awareness, prevention education and case management.
By the nature of its founding and the clients it first served MAP was for many years intimately linked with the LGBT community. But, as the demographics of the epidemic have broadened, particularly with the rates soaring among African-American men (many of whom don’t identify as gay but have sex with men) and heterosexual black women, the agency’s client base has substantially changed.
This has led to a sense among some within the gay community that MAP’s focus has shifted to serving these demographics at the expense of those who for years were the agency’s chief supporters, funders and volunteers.
According to one longtime community member, this perceived slight has recently led a group of donors to sever ties with the agency.
Carolina Celebration is a non-profit organization founded in 1990 by a group of longtime MAP board members, major donors and volunteers, to raise money for the agency’s Dennis Fund, named for one of MAP’s earliest clients, Dennis Thaw.
The tens of thousands of dollars Carolina Celebration generated each year through its annual party helped fill the gaps left by federal and state funding by providing direct financial assistance for clients.
Although no official announcement has been made, a Carolina Celebration founder and board member told Q-Notes that the board has voted to close the organization and will likely disband sometime around June 1.
“We decided about two months ago to discontinue servicing the Dennis Fund and go with something else,” Ed DePasquale said. “We were going to go through with changing the bylaws [and have the money go to a different organization]. Personally, I said the best thing to do is shut it down and start something else later down the road.”
DePasquale remembers how the gay and lesbian community rallied in those early years to confront the AIDS epidemic and combat its spread. He said he hasn’t seen the same level of commitment from communities of color. “Why should the gay community give their money to something when it isn’t going to help the gay community?” he asked.
MAP Executive Director Ann White took issue with DePasquale’s comments and lamented the decision to fold Carolina Celebration. “How can you put a color on somebody’s pain?
“Whereas the white gay community has the means and wherewithal to jump-start [prevention efforts] again — because it is affecting them — pretty much challenging them to wake up, I also understand the white gay community’s concern about African-American involvement.”
She pointed to decreased financial resources and an assortment of cultural issues as some of the reasons why involvement from communities of color has been less visible and less urgent compared to the militant AIDS activism of the LGBT community during the 1980s and 1990s.
“I remember when ACT-UP was really vocal about HIV/AIDS and how it affected the gay community,” she said. “One thing to remember is that a lot of people in the gay white community had a lot of resources [to facilitate that level of involvement.]”
White also expressed that MAP was being held responsible for circumstances beyond its control. “It’s almost as if because the gay and lesbian community is not as involved in our organization as they have been in the past that’s being held against us.”
Bob Oltz, MAP’s associate director, said, “The closure of Carolina Celebration isn’t going to hurt MAP; it will hurt our clients.” He noted that the Dennis Fund helps to cover vital needs like emergency housing and heating costs, hearing aids (a common necessity for people with HIV) and burial expenses for clients who die with no savings and no insurance.
Oltz added that criticism over MAP’s focus cuts both ways. “Ironically, the African-American community accuses us of being nothing but a gay organization.”
According to DePasquale, the Carolina Celebration board was also upset to discover that $4,000 was taken from the Dennis Fund last year by MAP to pay for an expenditure not related to direct client care. Even though the money was later paid back, he said the situation hastened Carolina Celebration board members’ decision to cut ties.
“That mismanagement didn’t help our attitude because many felt as though MAP could really do anything they wanted with the money and we had no control over it,” DePasquale said.
During a telephone interview, Carolina Celebration President Jeff Harkey offered a different take on what led to Carolina Celebration’s decision to close.
“The main reason for our closing was that founding members felt that we had basically run our course,” he said. “New members were still optimistic on turning things around and were fighting to get new energy into the organization. Older members thought it was just best to shut down and start something else later on… The money had no bearing on Carolina Celebration’s decision to close.”
According to one source, the financial squeeze that led MAP to borrow the money from the Dennis Fund — to cover an educational conference — was only one aspect of a major internal crisis at MAP.
The informant, who asked to remain anonymous, told Q-Notes that MAP’s board was in disarray for much of the latter half of 2007 from members resigning or being voted out and skyrocketing debts. He said then-MAP Board President Robert Dogens went as far as suggesting that the agency prepare an “exit strategy” for closing its doors.
When contacted by Q-Notes for confirmation, Dogens declined to comment.
The source said the current situation has improved significantly, which was supported by White and Oltz who said the MAP board has been reorganized and the debts are being paid down.
Although things are improving, “we’re a non-profit organization,” Oltz reminded. “We’re not a for-profit business and we depend solely on contributions and grants. We’re always going to have some debt.”
White believes that with the combined affects of President Bush’s HIV funding cuts — which have hurt AIDS service organizations from coast to coast — and the looming closure of Carolina Celebration, a clarion call needs to go out to those in the gay and lesbian community.
“What I think should happen is that we should get the gay and lesbian community more involved,” she said. “The disease still affects the gay and lesbian community and we still serve our clients who are LGBT. At the same time, we welcome their input.”
While MAP will face a challenge replacing the sizable funding provided by Carolina Celebration each year, things seem to be moving forward.
White said the agency has recently doubled its case management staff, is working with the d-UP! initiative targeting young, African-American men who have sex with men, has decreased the wait time for service intake, has expanded its AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) training classes and has increased the availability of low-cost housing options for clients.
Significantly, within the year MAP plans to open a primary care facility for people with HIV and AIDS. The facility will be the first to be operated primarily by a non-profit, community-based AIDS service organization. The clinic will also offer treatment for infectious diseases other than HIV.