By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ - When Daniel was diagnosed with HIV 13 years ago, he thought his life was over.
He didn't fit the profile of what he thought a person with HIV looked like. He thought only gay men could become infected and didn't realize he could get it by sharing drug needles.
"All I knew is that people who had HIV, that they will die soon," Daniel said in an interview at the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, where he's been receiving services since 2000. "I didn't have any information. I didn't have the resources."
Daniel, whose last name is withheld to safeguard his privacy, is just one of hundreds of clients the nonprofit agency, founded in 1985 during the height of the public health scare over HIV and AIDS, wants to continue serving through prevention, counseling and financial assistance programs.
Though the rate of new AIDS cases has slowed overall in the past decade, more people are living longer with the disease and require support. And as Latinos have made up an increasing number of the county's new diagnoses in recent years, the organization needs to continue to diversify and spread its reach.
But, as with many social services providers, the AIDS Project has struggled with declines in donations and other funding that have led to cutting staff and services. In order to keep going, it is joining forces with Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center, a move leaders of both agencies hope will provide the financial stability to maintain and even restore some programs.
"It would be difficult to stay open and very difficult to do the kinds of programs we want," Patricia Castagnola, interim executive director of the AIDS Project, said about trying to retain its independence.
In the mid 1990s, the organization had a $1 million annual budget that has since shrunk to $380,000. It has just five employees now, two of whom are part time, where once there were as many as 15.
The agency has had two executive directors in the past year, one who retired and the other who had a medical issue that forced him to step aside. For some time, there has been no development director to focus on fundraising.
After the Counseling Center received $30,000 as part of a $300,000 Packard Foundation grant designed to help nonprofits collaborate, it approached the AIDS Project to discuss a merger.
"It is a really good fit for our mission and services," said Executive Director Carolyn Coleman, noting her organization's focus on mental health, substance abuse, housing and health issues.
The merger, which was recently approved by the boards of both organizations, is expected to be completed by July. The organizations are considering a new site to house the AIDS Project and possibly some other Counseling Center programs.
MERGERS ARE COMMON
The merger reflects a larger trend in the nonprofit world since the economic recession began in 2008. A host of other local organizations have consolidated or are sharing space and administrative costs in order to maintain service or just stay open.
The Beach Flats Community Center, Mountain Community Resources and the Familia Center have come under the umbrella of Community Bridges, while the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County took in Mariposa's Arts. So far, 19 organizations have gotten a piece of the 2010 Packard Foundation grant, which was administered by United Way of Santa Cruz County.
Christina Cuevas, program director for Santa Cruz Community Foundation, said mergers have been critical "particularly in health and human services, as public funding has started to fall away. People started looking at ways to continue operating that were more cost effective and would enable them to continue their services."
Even though it will fall under the Counseling Center's banner, the AIDS Project will keep its own profile, including a four-bed transitional program called the Perlman House. There will continue to be free HIV testing, case management, food bank access and financial assistance for housing and utility costs for clients ranging in age from their 20s to 70s.
The project will also still raise its own funds with events such as the annual AIDS Walk, which took place Saturday along West Cliff Drive and raised about $16,000.
"SCAP has a lot of energy in the community," Coleman said. "We really want to make sure SCAP continues with its legacy and brand recognition."
Former Assemblymember and Santa Cruz Mayor John Laird, who was among six AIDS Project founders, said he is pleased by the merger, saying, "I'm glad someone is taking it on to make sure it continues."
Laird, who now serves as California's Secretary of Natural Resources, recalled how the project was created because of community concern about the growing crisis. Friends and lovers were dying of the disease, but so little was known at first about transmission and care.
"We were just losing clients regularly and it was tough because many were just my friends, completely separate from the fact that they were clients," Laird said. "We had hundreds of people who volunteered to help people who were sick. They stepped up and yet there wasn't the full understanding (of the disease.)"
The organization sought to provide the latest information on prevention and treatment, receiving its first grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and then from the county to open an office in Aptos, Laird said.
Sean Wharton of Lompico, another founding member, made connections with officials in San Francisco who were on the leading edge of research and treatment for what was seen then as a primarily gay disease. He brought that information back to Santa Cruz County, where he was amazed at how many organizations rallied around the project while other AIDS groups across the country faced social stigma.
"Santa Cruz's biggest accomplishment is that it stepped forward," Wharton said. "It helped gay people, and helped gay people take care of people who were already infected. I didn't get turned away from anywhere I went. In Santa Cruz, we were very lucky."
Once antiretroviral drug therapy materialized in the mid 1990s, the urgency of the organization's mission lessened even though the scope of its services had expanded to include transportation, housing and dental care and food supplies for clients. The office eventually moved to Soquel Drive, and when Laird became executive director in 1991, relocated to Center Street downtown.
The AIDS Project is now housed on Front Street, where Daniel, the longtime client from Santa Cruz, comes each Tuesday and Friday to volunteer in the organization's food bank.
He began visiting after receiving a flier from the organization printed in Spanish, and mostly attended support groups. But after losing his job as a janitor for Meals on Wheels, the 51-year-old father of two leaned on the organization for financial help while continuing his medical care from the county.
"I have great doctors and my medication is working for me," he said. "I'm also grateful I'm receiving emotional support from SCAP and other services, like food and rental assistance."
Juan Arellano, a case manager at the AIDS Project, said he hopes the merger with the Counseling Center will help the organization expand its outreach and services to the Latino community in South County and near Davenport. Thirty-seven percent of new HIV cases in the county from 2005-2009 were among Latinos, up from 29 percent of new diagnoses from 2000-2004, county figures show.
Arellano began working with HIV and AIDS clients because he didn't want others to suffer the shame his best friend did. After disclosing he had HIV, Arellano said the young man was shunned by most of his family because he was gay, leaving Arellano to provide rides to medical appointments and other support.
Arellano thought HIV was a big-city epidemic, one that couldn't come to his small town of Watsonville. He began working for an HIV program in Salinas and was eventually hired by the AIDS Project.
"It was something that really totally opened my eyes," he said of his friend's illness, which ended in his death more two years ago. "I wondered, how can we stop it?"