New Life

It may be the thought that counts, but only donations will keep the Colorado AIDS Project out of trouble.

Tony Garcia could see the shame and anger on the faces of the men who came to the Colorado AIDS Project to ask for help. They were men who spoke little or no English, men who hadn't yet told their families they'd been infected with HIV or whose families lived across the border -- men who had no place else to go.

For the mostly Mexican immigrants Garcia encountered as a case manager for CAP, HIV was an especially hard disease to deal with. Sex isn't talked about where they come from, much less homosexuality. And HIV, well, that's just taboo.

But Garcia says the pain these men had to endure didn't end at CAP's door. Some of the people working at the nonprofit's front desk would laugh at them because their pleas for help came out wrong or in broken English. Many had to fight for the services CAP offers, such as assistance in finding medical treatment or paying utility bills.

 
Clay Sisk
 
Colorado AIDS Project director Deirdre Maloney has a lot of work ahead of her.
John Johnston
Colorado AIDS Project director Deirdre Maloney has a lot of work ahead of her.

Garcia says these men complained of such humiliation to him four or five times a week during the more than two years he worked at the organization, which will handle about 1,550 clients this year. It made him sick -- so sick that he left CAP in 1999. "When I saw these clients, I had to spend a lot of time just making them feel comfortable. They would say they didn't know why they even came to CAP," says Garcia, himself an immigrant from Spain. "A lot of clients left. They didn't want to come back to CAP after the way they were treated.

"I always had to fight to get financial assistance for my clients; if someone needed $400 for rent, CAP would approve only $200. It was different for the white clients. And I always had to fight to get paperwork in both languages," Garcia continues, adding that CAP eliminated an HIV-prevention program aimed at gay Latino men in 1999. He also saw the clients who came in unshowered or unkempt. "That made a difference in how they were treated," he says. "Some of these people had no stable home, so they couldn't look presentable, but they were treated with no compassion."

Garcia and other former employees say CAP isn't doing enough to welcome Latino or black clients -- or, for that matter, anyone who doesn't fit the gay white male demographic that the organization has historically served. Because of this, Garcia left to take a position at People With AIDS Coalition Colorado, another advocacy nonprofit. He now works as a consultant for a national minority AIDS organization. "CAP is a white-gay organization," he says. "If they only want to work with gay white men, they need to say that."

But that's not what CAP is saying. On everything from its annual report to its Web site, Colorado's oldest and largest AIDS service organization pledges to meet the needs of the "changing face of AIDS." More and more Latinos and blacks are now learning they have AIDS, and many of CAP's clients these days are poor, homeless, addicted to drugs or alcohol or mentally ill. While CAP promises to address those needs, it faces a dwindling pot of money with which to do so -- a situation that has some observers wondering whether the organization is taking on too much.

And although people like Garcia feel that CAP hasn't done enough to accommodate an increasingly diverse clientele, there are some gay white men who feel abandoned because the agency that was created mostly by and for them is now reaching out to other people.

In addition, as CAP has responded to recent changes surrounding the disease, it has undergone an organizational restructuring and lost numerous employees, including its visionary leader of seventeen years. The organization is now on its third executive director this year.

The turmoil has had a devastating impact on finances. Donations to the eighteen-year-old nonprofit have dropped by 25 percent since 1997, according to its financial records. Thanks to government support, CAP's annual budget has remained steady over the past few years, at around $3 million, but because of waning donations and increasing client needs, services and programs have been eliminated to keep costs down.

New director Deirdre Maloney has a lot of work ahead of her if CAP really wants to serve all of the populations it says it does. And now, as it approaches its third decade, the nonprofit finds itself in the position of having to acknowledge its mistakes, correct misperceptions and rebuild confidence in an organization with a long and sometimes chaotic history.

The Epidemic

AIDS turned twenty this year. To understand CAP's growing pains and financial troubles, it's important to understand how the disease has changed over the past two decades.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first warning about a rare form of pneumonia occurring in a small group of gay men in Los Angeles on June 5, 1981; that illness, which was then called "gay-related immune deficiency" (GRID) was later discovered to be a result of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

At the time, Carol Lease headed Denver's Gay and Lesbian Community Center, which published a paper for its members, and she noticed stories coming across the wire about GRID. The community center, which operated a venereal-disease clinic, had gay male clients who were showing the same symptoms of this mysterious new disease. The first person in Colorado to be officially diagnosed with GRID, however, in May 1982, was not a gay man, but a hemophiliac. That case and others like it forced the CDC to recognize that this was not just a "gay disease." So in July 1982, the agency renamed it AIDS.

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