What a deal!

Joe Fuentes has no staff, no office, no documentation of the people he says he's helped, but hey, he's a good guy. Let's give him half a million dollars-plus.

Every January, Harris County hands out roughly $12 million in federal grants to nonprofit businesses serving people with AIDS, and every year, someone gets mad.

This year, the usual level of complaint about who got what was raised a notch. Now everybody wants to know: How can an organization that exists only on paper end up with more than a half-million dollars in federal AIDS grants?

At issue is a nonprofit called Houston Area Community Services, Inc. On January 27, the agency, known as HACS, was awarded $580,000 to provide case-management and outreach services for people who are HIV-positive.

HACS's executive director is Joe Fuentes, who, in late 1996, was appointed by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels to chair the local Ryan White Planning Council. As chair of the council, Fuentes helps set priorities for the use of federal AIDS grants channeled through Harris County, which receives dozens of proposals from area AIDS care providers each year.

Fuentes's proposal, however, was apparently filled with information that, at best, cannot be substantiated and, at worst, is patently false. For example, when Fuentes submitted his proposal last November 18, he claimed to have 23 case managers, counselors and support personnel ready to provide "24-hour, 7-day-a-week" services. But when contacted last week, Fuentes acknowledged that he has yet to hire any professional staff.

Moreover, HACS still has no office space and continues to "operate" from Fuentes's home in far-west Houston. Phone calls to the number listed on the funding proposal reach "the Houston Area Community Services voice-mail system," which doubles as Fuentes's home answering machine.

More troubling is Fuentes's claim that he has reached agreements with other organizations to collaborate on outreach and case-management services. When contacted by the Press, those organizations claimed to have never heard of Houston Area Community Services.

Among those Fuentes proposed to work with is S.E.A.R.C.H., the city's largest homeless shelter. Fuentes had proposed to put case managers and other HACS staff at S.E.A.R.C.H.'s downtown office, in an effort to reach more indigent people with AIDS. The idea impressed the county so much that HACS received $353,610 -- the entire pool of federal money available for local outreach services.

But Fuentes included the idea of this collaboration in his funding proposal without the knowledge of S.E.A.R.C.H.'s executive director, Sandy Kessler. Kessler didn't discover that HACS planned to use her facilities until after the grants had been awarded. Fuentes confirmed that Kessler has since told him that S.E.A.R.C.H will not collaborate with his agency --a development that could hamper Harris County's ability to identify new AIDS cases and refer them to appropriate care providers.

In an interview last week, Fuentes insisted his proposal was "as truthful as possible." He blamed the dispute over his $580,000 in grants on "larger, old-time providers" who had their funding cut this year.

"Times have changed," said Fuentes, who maintains that HACS started in 1995 as an informal group of volunteers who were also people with AIDS. "The disease has changed. Agencies need to change, and I think we can provide something that is different and unique."

Others, however, are appalled that the chair of the Ryan White Planning Council could simply draw up a proposal and, without an actual business address, receive more than a half-million dollars. More to the point, of course, they wonder how HACS will be able to meet the demand for case-management and outreach services when it has no staff or offices.

"He told me two weeks ago that he had an agency that had been there for three years, and I said that's absolutely a lie," recalled Angela Mora, executive director of Amigos Volunteers in Education and Services, or AVES. "Working in this field for so many years, we know what agencies are out there. [HACS] is a home; it's not an agency, it's a private home. Where are clients going to go if there is no agency?"

The ruckus over Houston Area Community Services' funding recalls the annual complaints that accompanied huge grants awarded to the Harris County Hospital District. At the time, the hospital district's director of government relations, King Hillier, was chair of the Ryan White Planning Council.

During Hillier's tenure, the hospital district had a virtual lock on roughly $2 million in federal funds earmarked annually for primary medical care. Hillier was also blamed for a change in county policy that prohibited direct funding of the Minority Caucus, a group of small agencies that carved up funds set aside to serve blacks and Hispanics in their own neighborhoods. By the time Fuentes took over as planning council chair in late 1996, Harris County had stripped the caucus of case-management funding, which minority service providers claimed made it difficult for their clients to find help.

The appointment of Fuentes, who is HIV-positive, was seen as a positive step by the local AIDS community, which had grown weary of the bitter infighting between the Minority Caucus, which represents communities in which the disease has spread rapidly, and the so-called mainstream organizations that receive most of the federal funds channeled through Harris County.

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