CRENSHAW : AIDS Center Closed for Lack of Funds

Citing a lack of financial support and a shortage of donors, the Gathering Place, the only AIDS drop-in center serving the primarily black and Latino South-Central population, closed last week.

The center, at 3870 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., was something of an oasis for AIDS and HIV patients who also wrestled with poverty, homelessness, prison records and unemployment, Director Graciela Morales said. "How can you close an agency whose services are so needed?" Morales said as she packed boxes in her office and talked to visitors and well-wishers who dropped by to tell her how sorry they were to see the clinic close. "We're just in shock here," Morales said.

The Sisters of St. Joseph Ministerial Services, which founded and operated the Gathering Place, decided the center wasn't getting enough outside financial support to remain operational. "For the past several months, we've been operating at a deficit," said Sister Margaret Murray, chairwoman of St. Joseph's 13-member board of directors. "We are very sorry to see it go, but the situation had been getting worse and we could no longer subsidize it." She said the organization had put $250,000 into the center.

Morales strongly opposed the decision, saying it was too sudden and insisting that there were healthy prospects of keeping the Gathering Place open. Three private and state grants totaling $250,000 were pending, Morales said, and she was applying for more.

"Of course our funding was tight, like a lot of other community-based places, but we would've made it," said Morales, who had been running the center on a budget of $10,000 a month. "I think there were some philosophical and political issues involved that ended up not serving the client, which is the most important thing."

Founded in 1990, the Gathering Place provided its AIDS and HIV clientele with a homey atmosphere and a variety of free services that included hot meals, massage therapy, art classes, clothing, housing and job referrals, transportation and health and nutrition counseling. Most of its black and Latino clientele--about 20 to 25 a day--were homeless, and others were parolees, women and children, and recovered drug and alcohol abusers. In August, the center moved from an aging medical building across Buckingham Road to an airy, refurbished space outfitted with a lounge, TV, kitchen and other amenities.

The closing shouldn't have happened this way, said longtime volunteer Herman Francis, who sat talking with clients Wednesday, the center's last day of operation. "We're not about statistics or anything else but helping clients. I gave love, I gave help and I gave my ear a lot of times," Francis said. "A lot of the people who come here don't fit the criteria for help at other places and won't have anywhere to go. We're not living up to our mission of helping the sick and the poor."

Regular client Daniel Emanuel, a recovered alcoholic who credits his survival of HIV to the education and care he received at the Gathering Place, said the closing "makes me feel like crying."

"This is a travesty of justice," said Emanuel, a slender man whose natty outfits stood out among Gathering Place patrons. "This is insufferable. . . . Anybody who had sex in the 1980s could come up with AIDS. I've seen a lot of people die. We should keep it open because most people who come here are disadvantaged and need it. I'm very angry."

Although the Sisters of St. Joseph said they recognized the need for centers like the Gathering Place, particularly in South-Central, they said their only option was to liquidate the center's assets and distribute them to AIDS operations throughout the city.

Morales said she plans to open at the same location within a month, but as an independent nonprofit agency. She is working on a partnership with Imagine, an AIDS support organization, to not only get the center back on its feet but add a crucial element to its services: child care. Many of the Gathering Place's clients came from the nearby T.H.E. Clinic, a clinic primarily serving women.

"We need to stay right here," Morales said. "We served as a prototype of both blacks and Latinos working together for a common purpose. We can't deviate from our mission."

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