May 12, 2010
An update to the story below was posted on May 17.
As thousands of New Yorkers gear up for the annual AIDS Walk in Manhattan on May 16, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) -- the main recipient of donations from the event -- has come under heavy criticism.
On April 21, New York Magazine's Tim Murphy reported that the venerable HIV/AIDS service organization will be moving out of its building on West 24th Street and will settle into a new building near Penn Station on West 33rd Street:
Gay Men's Health Crisis, in the neighborhood since 1981 and in the multistory Tisch Building on West 24th Street since 1997, will be leaving as well, pending final agreement on a new lease. It's not going very far: only about ten blocks to the north and a few west. With its current lease up at the end of the year, the agency, which serves about 15,000 people with HIV/AIDS from all over the city, simply couldn't afford the rent hike from $6.4 million to $9 million, according to author-activist Larry Kramer (the current head of GMHC, Dr. Marjorie Hill, would not confirm these numbers). ...
The new site is a ten-minute walk from Penn Station for clients in normal health; clients coming to the current site from anything other than the F or 1 trains face a walk that's as least as long.
Organizations move all the time. So what's the big deal?
Some complain that the move breaks the long-term relationship that GMHC has with the gay-friendly neighborhood of Chelsea. But what appears to really have many in the local HIV/AIDS community riled up is the perception that GMHC's exodus will also mean an end to many of the much-needed services that GMHC offers -- services that have underlined the core of GMHC's mission since its founding in 1981.
In an open letter, GMHC's own Consumer Advisory Board (CAB) blasts the HIV/AIDS organization for changing its mission statement without community input. The GMHC CAB claims that the strict lease terms at the new location will eradicate GMHC's clinic services and its nutrition, harm reduction and HIV testing programs. Here is an excerpt:
For the first 25 years, the GMHC Mission Statement stated that:
"Gay Men's Health Crisis is a not-for-profit, volunteer-supported and community-based organization committed to local and national leadership in the fight against AIDS. Our mission is to reduce the spread of HIV disease, help people with HIV maintain and improve their health and independence, and keep the prevention, treatment and cure of HIV an urgent national and local priority. In fulfilling this mission, we will remain true to our heritage by fighting homophobia and affirming the individual dignity of all gay men and lesbians."
On December 1, 2009, without any input from clients, volunteers, community or the CAB, the Board changed the GMHC Mission Statement to:
"GMHC fights to end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected."
This deletion of any specific mention of services to clients is now being followed with an impending move to another building. The lease for this new building has restrictions which would result in a severe reduction in precisely those services that most directly effect [sic] people's health and quality of life. Gone will be the full service kitchen and cafeteria with its special atmosphere, where 300 clients have hot meals prepared by caring professional chefs and staff served daily. Friday night dinner will be completely eliminated. Gone also will be HIV testing in the building. Gone will be the clinic downstairs. And gone will be the common entrance for staff, clients and visitors. HIV clients will be stigmatized, obliged to use a single elevator at a side entrance segregated from other users of the building. With these changes, we are witnessing a radical reduction in critical services and a drastic change in GMHC's original mission.
Joseph Sellman -- a 24-year GMHC client and activist -- told TheBody.com that while GMHC has been reluctant to go into detail about possible cuts, people inside the organization have confirmed what is in the open letter from the GMHC CAB. "I have been there for a long time and have many contacts, and this has been their consensus," he said. "Marjorie Hill [GMHC's Chief Executive Officer] and the board keep telling us to trust them and that they have our best interest in mind. I no longer believe them."
Sellman says a protest rally will be held on May 19 from noon to 2 p.m. in front of the doors to GMHC's current building on West 24th Street. "The notion of getting rid of services has really pinched a nerve in the community," he said. "There has even been talk of people boycotting the AIDS Walk to make a statement." Sellman adds, "Without these services, how can they keep taking money that are given to fund services?"
TheBody.com reached out to Hill to talk about these accusations. Krishna Stone, GMHC's Assistant Director of Community Relations, declined our request, but sent us the following statement:
GMHC has a task force that is actively addressing our long-term real estate situation. As a result of the complexities of the New York real estate market and GMHC's particular space requirements, this has been a long, in-depth process. During this time, a significant amount of misinformation has been disseminated about this situation. While it would be premature to comment further at this time, I can say GMHC's board will move forward with a real estate strategy that is both financially responsible and provides the highest level of service to our 10,000 clients.
It's not known when GMHC will divulge any real details about its future, but Sellman suspects that it will happen after this weekend, given that AIDS Walk 2010, the funds from which largely benefit GMHC, takes place on Sunday, May 16. "They are not going to say anything now, because they know that people would go ballistic at AIDS Walk."
TheBody.com will continue to monitor this story and provide any updates.
[Editor's note: TheBody.com's team committed itself to taking part in, and fundraising for, AIDS Walk 2010 long before this story developed; it participated in last year's AIDS Walk as well. TheBody.com's participation in the walk is continuing as planned.]