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Life support

Saddled with debt, L.A.'s Minority AIDS Project is in danger of closing.

June 08, 2005|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Toothless. Skeletal. Homeless. Rock-cocaine addict. HIV positive. That's how Richard Hamilton describes himself seven years ago when he finally hit bottom and sought help from the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles.

Hamilton, who works as a program coordinator for MAP, is now billboard handsome with a brilliant smile. He's living proof of the agency's effectiveness in serving its primarily African American and growing number of Latino clients who either have or are at risk for the virus that causes AIDS -- including some of the sickest, poorest, most desperate and hardest-to-reach men and women in South Los Angeles.

His bank account reveals, however, all is not well.

The paychecks are late. MAP -- the first black AIDS organization in the United States -- is in danger of dying.

"We're in danger of the doors being closed," Executive Director Victor McKamie says recently at the MAP headquarters on West Jefferson Boulevard near South La Brea Avenue. The nonprofit agency is about $500,000 in debt due to shortfalls in public and private funding.

Archbishop Carl Bean, who founded MAP in 1985 and remains chairman of the board, fears the agency will go under without a substantial cash infusion. MAP's demise would put an end to an organization whose very existence was revolutionary for the minority community.

In the early days of the disease, the public face of AIDS was a gay white man. Services, support and all kinds of help poured into those neighborhoods. African Americans at risk or infected had nowhere to turn in the black community, where the deep stigma of homosexuality caused the traditional oases -- home and church -- to turn their backs.

Bean -- black, gay and a minister -- stepped up. With a single phone line and missionary zeal, he started the Minority AIDS Project. As word spread, he and members of his Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, a haven for gay worshipers, provided outreach, support and succor.

"Carl Bean took the initiative to respond to the need when people were being discriminated against, stigmatized and being abandoned, dying by themselves," says Cynthia Davis, one of Los Angeles' best-known AIDS activists.

The agency soon moved into a nondescript building, but Bean didn't put up a sign that proclaimed "Minority AIDS Project."

"If they'd had one, when they first opened it 20 years ago, people would have burned it down. You know how black people were about AIDS," says a woman who requests that her name not be used because she is married to a prominent African American.

That building remains the agency's headquarters and still doesn't have a sign spelling out MAP's name.

No one is turned away.

"Everyone gets a hug," the Rev. Russell Thornhill says. "We ask, 'When's the last time you've eaten,' and we give them something hot." If the cupboards are bare, Thornhill and others reach into their own pockets and give money for food and bus fare.

MAP provides services such as case management, counseling, treatment adherence, health education, testing, a needle exchange and a food pantry, for about 1,200 clients a month, three-quarters of whom are men.

"Bottom line, they reach a population that a lot of other minority CBOs [community-based organizations] don't have the expertise to reach," says Davis who runs education and prevention programs for women, youth and other high-risk groups. "The population they target has the highest rates of infection: gay men of color, bisexual men and men in the closet."

African Americans represent the majority of people getting HIV, living with the virus and dying of AIDS-related causes today, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Race can matter regarding treatment. A Rand Corp. and Oregon State University study, released in February, found a significant number of African Americans distrust the healthcare system and believe in conspiracy theories, among them that a cure for AIDS has been found but that the information is being withheld from poor people.

"Black people still have suspicions about the system, about the police, about government," says the Rev. Charles Lanier, MAP's chief financial officer. They are more likely to trust MAP, he says, because, "when I come to MAP, I see somebody who looks like me. I can connect because we have a shared experience."

Funding cuts

MAP's financial problems run deep and aren't easily solvable. According to Lanier, MAP lost $2 million -- about half of the annual budget -- in the most recent rounds of public funding.

Not because of mismanagement or malfeasance, say government officials and AIDS activists, familiar with MAP's situation, but because Washington now favors direct services for people living with HIV or AIDS over outreach, prevention, education and testing.

High ratings don't guarantee dollars, McKamie learned, when the CDC approved one of MAP's programs but didn't have the money to fund it.

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