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Slim to None

AIDS Organization Says It Will Have to Close Its Doors If Funding is Not Found By End of the Month

By Waris Banks | Posted 1/8/2003

Ask J. Lawrence Miller what was at the top of his wish list this holiday season, and he'll tell you that what he really wanted was more money and resources to fight AIDS and HIV in the city of Baltimore. And as the holiday season drew to a close, says Miller, executive director of the Baltimore-based Black Educational AIDS Project, his hopes for a holiday miracle were dampened. Now his organization must begin the new year by facing a distressing reality: If it does not find an immediate infusion of cash or donated services by the end of January, the Black Educational AIDS Project must cut programs, slash salaries, or, even worse, shut its doors altogether.

"It's pretty ambiguous as to what we're going to do right now," Miller says. "We may not be able to pay all of our rent. Or I could just forgo my salary, but then there wouldn't be anybody running the agency. Right now I'm not even earning my contracted amount."

There simply isn't enough money to fund the nonprofit group's programs in addition to its basic administrative costs, Miller says. The Black Educational AIDS Project's annual operating budget is about $367,000 per year, made up of funds from federal and state grants and private donations. With that money, it must pay seven full-time staff members, cover its overhead expenses (rent, utilities, and other business-related expenses), and run its programs. Two of the street-outreach and prevention programs the organization runs are funded by the $300,000 the project gets from the federal Centers for Disease Control. All of the money must be spent directly on the programs--none may be used to cover administrative or overhead expenses. The rest of the organization's budget, $67,000, is spent to administer a program that helps people with AIDS find housing. Most of the money for that program comes from federal grants, and a small portion of it comes from individual private donations.

"Private donations for last fiscal year will equal less than $1,000, donated by myself, my board, and friends of mine," Miller says.

The Black Educational AIDS Project celebrates its 14th birthday this month, and Miller fears this may be its last. The organization has been providing "culturally appropriate health promotion [and] disease prevention for African-Americans impacted by HIV in the Baltimore area," according to its mission statement. In the past, it was funded by state and local grants, but over the years--during which the AIDS epidemic in Baltimore has grown--sources of funding have not kept up.

The picture was even more grim when Miller signed on as executive director three years ago. At the time, he says, the organization was bankrupt and about $100,000 in debt. Since then, the organization has managed to stay afloat through cutting administrative costs, layoffs, and aggressive collection of money owed to the group by other agencies. But raising money has proven to be difficult, partly because of a national decrease in donations to nonprofit organizations since Sept. 11; the other problem, Miller says, is that black nonprofit organizations traditionally have a harder time raising money than other charities.

"We have not brought any serious new funding into this agency," Miller says. "And my experience and strength is in organizational development, not fund-raising or fund-development."

The scarcity of funding hurts Miller's six-person staff in particular, all of whom make pretax annual salaries of less than $24,000. (Miller declined to state his salary for the record, but he says it is "considerably less than $60,000" and "well below the average" range for nonprofit executive directors in Maryland.) For example, staff member Tim Smith, a peer educator for the organization's At the Door program, makes $20,000 per year. The program he helps administer greets newly released inmates diagnosed with HIV/AIDS upon their release from prison, welcomes them back to the community, and assists them in locating employment, housing, and health care. The organization allots $25 to feed each newly released inmate. But Smith says that's often not enough. He says he has found himself handing out money from his own pocket to help his charges make ends meet in the days following release.

"No one wants to be out and not eat, especially if they're already sick," Smith says. "I don't want to [give away money], but it's something I have to do."

The 43-year-old Smith designed the At the Door program for the Black Educational AIDS Project. Smith says he understands the situation many of these former inmates are in: He has only a ninth-grade education, was once incarcerated, and is living with HIV.

The Black Educational AIDS Project is not the only AIDS service organization facing financial crisis. Money is tight for AIDS groups all over Baltimore City, says Darryl Kofi Kennon, director of the Park Heights-based African-American Health Alert, a coalition of more than 30 groups that provide prevention and treatment services for substance abuse, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Kennon says his organization must fulfill its mission to "stem the epidemics of diseases that disproportionately affect the African-American community in Park Heights" with only six full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $360,000. His organization, he says, is desperate for money too.

Despite the fact that AIDS continues to be a huge public-health program, Kennon says, "there's no guarantee that we're going to get money for next year." The African-American Health Alert must reapply every year for its federal, state, and local funding, and there's never a guarantee that it will be approved.

The financial uncertainty Baltimore's AIDS organizations face comes just a month after Mayor Martin O'Malley declared an AIDS-related state of emergency on Dec. 2. According to the CDC, the Baltimore area has the third-highest AIDS incidence rate in the country. As of Dec. 31, 2000, more than 12,000 people in Baltimore City were known to be living with the disease, according to the City Council Commission on HIV and AIDS Prevention and Treatment.

Both Kennon and Miller are hoping the state-of-emergency declaration will help struggling AIDS groups find more money to fight the disease. Miller points out that when Alameda County, Calif., declared an AIDS-related state of emergency four years ago it helped draw additional funding to fight the disease in the region's hardest-hit communities.

In the meantime, Miller is hoping for help from the business community: He says businesses should recognize their "corporate responsibility" to invest in community-based organizations, especially struggling ones like his and Kennon's. He is also asking the city to create a line item in its budget specifically for HIV/AIDS prevention (AIDS funding is now predominantly folded under the banner of health care).

Kennon and Miller say that the fate of their organizations lies in the hands of O'Malley. Miller says his political clout could rescue both organizations from their current cash crises, asserting that the mayor has the pull to simply "pick up the telephone" and make a direct appeal for state and federal officials to direct more money to the city's battle against AIDS.

City Hall spokesperson told City Paper that fighting HIV/AIDS is a priority in the O'Malley administration and that the mayor is committed to funding AIDS service organizations in the city. Further questions were referred to city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson, who said the city has already made direct appeals to federal officials, including U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-7th). Beilenson says the city has also worked with U.S. senators Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes to create a $2 million line item in the federal budget to fight AIDS in Baltimore City. The line item has not passed in the Senate yet, but if it does, Beilenson says, some of that money would likely trickle down to organizations like the Black Educational AIDS Project and the African-American Health Alert.

But Miller is skeptical. He wonders why no one from the city's Health Department has ever called him to explain its work on the line item, and whether AIDS is being taken seriously enough by the O'Malley administration. Time--for both his organization and those living with the disease--is running out, he says.

"It's going to take the mayor to say, 'Fuck this, this is going to be a part of my policy and agenda,'" Miller says. "I would love to see what the hell happens."

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