New Life

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

"I guess the official word is that I wasn't a good fit and that I agreed," he adds.

He's right: The only explanation CAP would offer is that he wasn't a good fit.

The organization also tried a number of things to save money and achieve more consistency. In 1999, for instance, it combined its Wellness Resource Center, which is in charge of providing services to clients, with its Prevention Center, which provides AIDS education. The two departments were separated again a year later. The changes created confusion and dissension among the staff.

 
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.

"It didn't seem like the staff was in the loop...until decisions were made," Maloney acknowledges. "I understand that frustration. That was a learning curve in how to communicate to the staff. That's something we're striving to do better."

The turmoil didn't go unnoticed by donors -- or by volunteers, who are just as crucial to the organization; CAP relies heavily on unpaid supporters to answer phones, to speak publicly about AIDS and to help solicit participation in fundraising events. "People who had been giving money said, 'No way, I'm not going to give money this year,'" says former CAP case manager Garcia. "People are talking about what's happening there. The community has a right to ask for answers, but they don't want to give reasons for things like why Scott really left. Everything is this big secret.

"If you don't communicate with the community openly, all these rumors start going around," Garcia adds. "People in the community are asking how long Deirdre [Maloney] will be there."

Although former donors and volunteers contacted by Westword declined to discuss their reasons for ceasing or reducing their support, several former employees say the internal dissension was partly to blame. "The clients used to be the biggest fundraisers because they would go out and talk about HIV," says one, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Now it's hard to find a client willing to speak on behalf of CAP. People are not going to donate if their brother or their friend isn't getting services. If you provide the services compassionately, the money will come back twofold."

The former employee also noticed that some clients received better treatment than others. "There's a certain amount of subjectivity on the part of the person who decides whether they should get money. Someone may decide that the person is being untruthful about their circumstances without any proof, like, 'I think he's smoking up his money and then coming to CAP,'" the former employee says. "If you're not going to give money to drug users because you think they're going to waste it, you need to use that standard across the board. A gay white man who drives to CAP in his Volvo may have substance-abuse problems, too. He just may be doing meth instead of the black man off the street who's doing heroin. They'll assume the black man is using his CAP money for drugs instead of food or rent, but they won't question the gay white man."

As former chair of CAP's client committee, which formed eight years ago as a way to give clients a voice, CAP client Reggie Champion is familiar with such complaints. "I've had many people of color come to me and address issues of how they were treated," he says. "If a person was in line to get groceries and he was white, he'd get more, but if he was Latino or African-American, he'd get less; blacks and Latinos would get less emergency assistance money; CAP would pay full rent for white people, but not for people of color."

And Champion, who's black, says he's experienced that kind of treatment firsthand. "I went to them for cell-phone help. My bill had gotten behind and I needed assistance, but they told me they don't assist with cell-phone payments. I found out later that they paid someone else's cell-phone bill. He was a white guy."

Champion chaired the client committee from October 2000 to July 2001, when CAP replaced him with a staff member. The staff person, he says, implied that the reason she was taking over was because clients weren't getting an equal voice under the committee's previous structure. "That's not valid. We followed parliamentary procedure, and everyone had an equal voice," he says, adding that since the staffer took over, participation at the monthly meetings has gone from between twenty and thirty clients to six or seven. "Most people don't come because they figure it doesn't mean anything anymore. It's not a platform for the clients; it's a smokescreen."

Maloney says that replacing Champion with a staff person was not an attempt to wrest control from the clients, but to make the meetings more efficient; having a staff person familiar with what the agency can do to address clients' concerns just made more sense, she says.

And other, more subtle things have alienated people, according to clients and former employees. Up until a few years ago, CAP would give people $10 food coupons each month that could be redeemed at grocery stores. "That wasn't a lot of money, but it was a gesture that said, 'We care about you,'" says the former employee. "When they cut that, it created a lot of bad will among people who triggered a lot of donations."

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