Pioneering AIDS fund in jeopardy

HIV and AIDS activists around the state are informally discussing whether to launch a last ditch effort to reinstate millions in the current year’s budget for a fund that just two years ago put Illinois on the map as a national pioneer in HIV and AIDS funding for black communities.
The deadline to make any changes to the current budget is Nov. 21, when the legislative veto session ends.

An investigation by The Chicago Reporter found that many of the organizations that would have received the money this year were unaware that lawmakers decided during closed-door budget negotiations this spring to scuttle $3 million for the state’s African-American HIV/AIDS Response Fund and other programs they considered redundant because the state was facing a $1.2 billion budget deficit, said State Sen. Donne Trotter, who was part of the decision-making process.

Any effort to restore the money would likely fail, said Trotter, who represented senate Democrats in state budget negotiations. “Anything is possible,” he said. “But the probabilities are very slim.”

The legislature has allocated $26 million this current fiscal year to other HIV and AIDS programs, according to an analysis by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. An official from the Illinois Department of Public Health said the number is $72 million, including salaries and other administrative costs. More than 74 percent of the people served in 2002 by the state’s HIV budget were African-American, said Tom Hughes, the deputy director of the Office of Health Protection, which oversees the HIV/AIDS section.

With the Response Fund, Illinois joined the ranks of a handful of states that set aside money for HIV and AIDS organizations that target black people. California’s law followed shortly after the Illinois legislation. Community groups in Maryland and Kentucky are in the process of planning a push for similar laws.

However, the fiscal health of governmental budgets is taking its toll on HIV and AIDS funding nationwide. Governors are asking their AIDS offices to cut 5 to 10 percent of their budgets, by freezing hiring, suspending travel and other measures, said Julie Scofield, the executive director of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors.

California cut $17 million of its fiscal year 2009 HIV and AIDS funding, Florida cut $2 million, Massachusetts cut $1.5 million and the District of Columbia cut $1 million, Scoffield said. “I haven’t found many that aren’t going through this,” she said. “It’s tough times; it’s a little frightening.”

Nationwide, black people comprise 49 percent of those who have HIV and AIDS, but only 12 percent of the population. Illinois mirrors those statistics, with African-Americans comprising more than half of all Illinois residents living with HIV or AIDS, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, but only 15 percent of the state’s population.

Since Illinois’ response fund began in fiscal year 2007, it has awarded about $4.6 million in grants to about 80 Illinois nonprofits and churches to provide HIV or AIDS services or support services to organizations that do.

State Rep. Constance “Connie” Howard, who sponsored Illinois’ bill to create the Response Fund, was disheartened to learn in September that the Response Fund would receive no funding this fiscal year. She said it’s wrong to call the Response Fund redundant, because it didn’t just target African-Americans, but strengthened the programs of HIV and AIDS organizations that target African-Americans, a critical population.

“We can continue to nickel and dime and hit or miss this scourge on our community and it won’t result in any benefit,” said Howard, who plans to shift her focus to obtaining financing for the next fiscal year, which won’t start until July 2009.

If activists fail to convince the legislature to restore the Response Fund this fiscal year, the Illinois nonprofits subsidized by it last fiscal year will be greatly affected.

The Reporter attempted to contact all of the organizations that received money through the law during the past two years and was able to reach 20. The Reporter found that the Chicago-based Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation was the state’s largest beneficiary of the response fund. In June, the foundation laid off all its workers as a result of not getting funded.
Let’s Talk, Let’s Test foundation has not received any of its money from the last fiscal year. The non-profit is being audited and has yet to finish justifying to the Illinois Department of Public Health the money it spent in fiscal year 2008.

Howard said the foundation will try to continue its work without state money. An Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson refused to explain the agency’s audit of Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation. But Lloyd Kelly, the non-profit’s executive director, said the Illinois Department of Public Health on Sept. 30 began an examination of the foundation’s financial records.

Beverley Walker-Donley, executive director of Greater Westside Development Corporation, said the $50,000 her group received in fiscal year 2008 accounted for 52 percent of their budget–•supplies and salaries for two outreach workers. Without the grant, she can’t afford to pay staff or herself. “I’m biting the bullet,” Walker-Donley said. “I’m up all night, all day writing grants because I don’t have money to pay myself full time. I don’t have money to pay myself part time.”

More than half the grantees the Reporter interviewed didn’t know the Response Fund was in trouble. “Really?” said Betty Smith, executive director of the South Side Help Center, when she heard. The center received a $50,000 grant from the fund during the last fiscal year for testing more than 300 people and educating more than 1,500 people about HIV prevention. “We worked so hard to get that program,” Smith said.

Stephanie Behne, Laura Burns, Kara Madden, Anita Valentin and Marian Wang helped research this article.

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