In Denial

As HIV spreads among blacks and Hispanics, agencies that serve those communities say they're being shortchanged

Particularly when Reyna and others in the Minority Caucus suspect that those agencies that have historically served gay men are in fact cooking their client projections to assure themselves more funding. They insist there is no way that, say, the AIDS Foundation -- whose offices are on the northern edge of River Oaks -- can claim to serve a majority of blacks and Hispanics.

Selber reported that just more than half her clients in 1995 were black or Hispanic; 82 percent were men. Yet in 1996, the foundation received funding for seven minority case managers. Meanwhile, there are no community-based case management services available for African-Americans. The NAACP lost its case manager, and the WAM Foundation, whose 1,700 clients are 89 percent black and 63 percent women, was shut out as well.

"The problem is," says Ann Robison, director of the Montrose Counseling Clinic, "a lot of agencies are now saying they are minority agencies. The AIDS Foundation got all the African-American case managers. I would be embarrassed to try and claim to be a minority provider."

Eckels and Cooper say that if there's a better way to distribute the Ryan White grants, they want to hear it. Eckels ordered King Hillier, chair of the Harris County Ryan White Planning Council, which sets funding priorities for HIV services, to form a committee to make recommendations. Hillier, who admits there are inequities in the county process, says he has asked the committee to finish its work by month's end.

But many say the committee's recommendations will be meaningless as long as the Planning Council continues to consist of representatives from the largest, best-funded agencies. The Minority Caucus thrived at a time when the NAACP, AAMA and other community-based groups had seats on the council. Now, none of those groups are represented.

"We were all thrown off," Gassama says. "It seems to me that if you were interested in working with the community, you'd have the NAACP and AAMA involved."

Eckels seems to be losing patience with the Minority Caucus' complaints. He acknowledges that injustices have occurred, but that no one complained until after the funds were allocated. And, as far as he's concerned, Sue Cooper and the HIV Services Division are not the problem. He agrees with his HIV services director that she is being assailed by a few malcontents.

"If they could come up with a way to fund everyone of those organizations totally, to the extent that it complies with the county purchasing laws, we'd do it tomorrow," Eckels says. "It's not about any racial issues. If AAMA can make their case on the criteria established, they will be funded. They told me they could compete.

"The process is flawed? Well, make the process work. But I don't want them coming back to me after the fact complaining that it doesn't work."

To some longtime AIDS activists, the struggle for equality in Harris County has been exhausting. And it'll likely heat up more before it gets better -- in addition to councilmembers Robinson and Saenz, four Texas lawmakers have begun to lobby for more minority funding: Congressman Gene Green, state Senator Mario Gallegos and state Representatives Gerard Torres and Garnet Coleman.

Some wonder if that will be enough clout.
Bob Hergenroeder, director of the very directly named People with Aids Coalition, went toe-to-toe with Cooper for almost two years over the county attorney's ruling on minority funding. Nothing's changed since then, and while he doubtlessly hopes for the best, he sounds far from optimistic.

"The assumption was that the minority agencies would do as well as anyone else," he says. "But it's been proved that they are not on an equal footing. It seems like the county really doesn't care if the minority agencies get any funding.

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