Government cuts decimate black HIV prevention programs


The HIV/AIDS/STD Prevention and Awareness (HAS) Program headquarters at The City, Inc.’s South Minneapolis location is uniquely decorated with autographed pictures of hip hop and R&B icons such as Ice Cube and Jaheem, and posters displaying slogans such as “Check Yo’Self B-4 You Wreck Yo’Self.”

However, one small poster stands out above all the other postings on the wall: In stark white letters on a black background, it says, “‘This thing is real and it doesn’t discriminate against anyone.’ — Easy E.” The infamous gangsta rapper died of AIDS-related complications in 1995.

For 13 years, the HAS Program has connected sexual health and HIV/STD education with urban African American youth culture. Centered around a peer educator group called the Check Yo’Self Crew recruited from the African American youth it targets, it is run by Program Director Charlnitta Ellis, known as “Mama Chi” by the crew and other youth served by the program.

The program has been almost exclusively funded by the Minneapolis Department of Health’s (MDH) HIV prevention grants since it was founded. However, when HAS applied for another MDH grant to cover the 2006-2008 funding period, the program did not receive funding.

When the money from its last MDH grant runs out on July 31, the HAS Program will have to close.

The HAS Program is not the only HIV prevention effort previously funded by MDH that was not funded for 2006-2008. Twelve programs that had received MDH grants for the 2003-2006 funding period were not given new funding. Seven of those programs were operated by and for people of color, a fact that has caused an outcry in the HIV prevention work community.

Specifically, out of 21 programs funded by MDH for 2006-2008, only two that were not given funding targeted for “African High Risk Heterosexuals (25 years of age and older)” were people-of-color-run organizations: Indigenous Peoples Task Force, a Native American HIV education and prevention agency; and Turning Point, an African American social service agency chiefly known for its chemical health and dependency programs.

“When I look at what happened with the funding situation, Turning Point being the only African American agency that received funding,” said Ellis, “my personal opinion is that money was cut, there was a small pot of money in general for everything that needs to be done, and they do what they do — they took care of their own.”

The federal government has cut $200,000 from Minnesota HIV/AIDS prevention funding. MDH AIDS/STD Director Kip Beardsley dealt with this cut by making a number of decisions that have outraged the HIV prevention community, including defunding the Minnesota AIDS Project’s AIDSLine, cutting HIV prevention grant funds by 2.5 percent, and placing a cap on how much funding could be requested. That cap may have shut out many programs from submitting grant proposals.

Beardsley resigned from MDH on June 9, stating in an email announcement that he “accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University providing technical assistance to HIV care and prevention programs in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.” Before he announced his resignation, Beardley told the MSR that MDH was able to increase funding to “agencies in communities of color that serve gay and bisexual men…and…for African American heterosexuals.”

However, when Beardsley was asked to acknowledge the loss of funding to organizations run by and for people of color, he said that he “couldn’t respond…[unless] I know the specific proposal and the specific target population.”

Beardsley emphasized that MDH made sure to fund organizations that have a history of serving people of color, but when asked if MDH considers organizations with a staff and board reflecting the population they serve as a criteria for funding, he responded, “The decision was based on the quality of the proposal that was received…and it was also based on the ability of the organization to effectively reach the population that they were applying to serve.”

“I have the longest history, in terms of HIV-specific funding, with young people that I know, to my knowledge,” said HAS Director Ellis. “[MDH] didn’t fund me, but [they] funded two other programs that…in the [funding period] cycle before that, didn’t have HIV programs.”

In a grievance letter submitted to MDH in April by The City, Inc. and 10 other HIV prevention programs, one of the complaints about the MDH funding process was that “MDH failed to reward proposals from agencies that successfully completed its own evaluation process. Demonstrated success in HERR [Health Education and Risk Reduction] interventions over the last five years was ignored.”

African American AIDS Task Force (AAATF) was one of the organizations listed on the grievance letter, and Executive Director Gwen Velez said about the defunding of the HAS Program, “You have…a program that has served youth successfully for I’m not sure how many years…and it’s serving a group of youth that may not necessarily be served, and certainly won’t be served the same way. There’s no reason why that should occur.”

AAATF was founded in 1995, but it was denied MDH funding for both 2006-2008 and for the previous funding period. “Our money ended up in traditional white organizations — money to serve African American people — and there’s something wrong with that,” Velez asserted. “It has taken the African American community 15 years to build this capacity, and it was wiped out in one fell swoop by Minnesota Department of Health. Now, what’s wrong with that picture?”

Ellis concurs with this assessment: “The African American community was basically shut out… I think the African American community has been set back a good 10 years by the decisions that they made… They put a lot of people that work in this field in the African American community out of work. Not only did they shortchange our community, they’re taking away jobs.”

Now what? “I’m looking at some other funding possibilities,” Ellis says. “My job here at The City, Inc. is over July 31. The City, Inc. is not in the financial position to be able to fund the program.”

At the HAS Program, there are currently nine active Check Yo’Self Crew members. The peer educator group is unique for being a mix of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender African American youth. Though the HAS Program must close its doors at The City, Inc. at the end of July, “I’m not just throwing in the towel,” Ellis said. “I’m going to look for funding so this program can continue.”

Ellis will also continue to look out for all the youth that call her “Mama.”

“The people that receive funding in the youth categories, I’m holding them accountable,” Ellis vows. “My youth are going to have to be served by their agencies. One of the things that I will be telling [the youth] at the wind-down of this program is, ‘This is the agency that is going to serve youth.’ I’m going to take them over there, introduce them to the agencies, show it to them, and tell them, ‘This is where you will come when you need HIV information and services.’ Whatever it is that they’re saying they’re going to provide, it’s going to need to go down like that. And I’m going to be watching.”

Next week, this story concludes by looking at African American HIV prevention providers’ claims of discriminatory treatment by MDH and its former AIDS director — and how $224,000 of HIV prevention money was left unfunded.