Notes from the Dead Zone

The politics of AIDS funding in black Miami

What resentment there is on all sides, however, remains under the surface, rarely acknowledged publicly. "It's sad to say this off the record but I have to live in this community," offers an advocate with long experience in the AIDS field. "I want to live in this perfect world, can't we all get along, but the underlying thing is there is hidden racism going on, because historically all the funding has been attuned to gay white men and their organizations, but when the epidemic changed [black] people said, 'We're 20 percent of the population but make up 51 percent of the epidemic,' and I thought when other people saw that they'd say, 'Yeah, we need to do something,' but instead they're feeling threatened and think we want to take away their funding. So we don't say anything for fear of offending. I struggle with this daily, how much I'm going to say, how much I'm going to be party to. I actually feel I'm part of the problem, because I don't want to lose my job and everything else I have in Miami-Dade County. It's a very tight circle, and it's not that the powers-that-be can [retaliate] -- they will."

As an alleged example of retaliation against the "threat" of a successful black organization, this advocate and others point to the six-month-long, still ongoing, audit of Minorities Overcoming the Virus through Education, Responsibility and Spirituality (MOVERS). The eight-year-old Liberty City nonprofit is the state's largest black-owned AIDS service provider with a budget of about four million dollars. Regardless of the outcome of the audit, conducted by the Florida Department of Health, MOVERS' reputation and ability to attract funding may be hurt. Both MOVERS' executive director, Patricia Kelly, and its founder, Rev. George McRae, declined to speak to New Times until the audit is finalized.

Some within the black community have taken MOVERS' current travails as an opportunity to turn against the politically connected organization, alleging nepotism and misuse of federal funds. It may be logical to assume an audit that has continued for several months will produce evidence of financial improprieties. Supporters of MOVERS fear any defect could be used by government funders or regulators to take over the operations and, in the words of one MOVERS employee, "destroy the cultural integrity of the largest African-American organization totally dedicated to HIV-AIDS." By now MOVERS has become an institution, serving thousands of clients each week and benefiting from the prestige of McRae, pastor of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in Liberty City and one of the first authoritative voices in Florida to call attention to the AIDS scourge among African Americans.

After ten years in the trenches, Petera Johnson-Hobson, left, and Vanessa Mills finally latched onto the funding to run their own program
Steve Satterwhite
After ten years in the trenches, Petera Johnson-Hobson, left, and Vanessa Mills finally latched onto the funding to run their own program
Vanessa Mills helps coordinate food distribution, as well as condoms and AIDS tests
Steve Satterwhite
Vanessa Mills helps coordinate food distribution, as well as condoms and AIDS tests

"We should be backing [MOVERS] right now," asserts the anonymous AIDS advocate, "but because of our jobs we're afraid to speak up. The kind of damage this [audit] could do, even when you come out with a clean slate, there'll be a gray cloud still hanging over them. It's already planted doubt, and you know how gossip and innuendo spreads. And everyone knows if the health department does that to MOVERS, which is recognized as a leader, it opens the door for everyone else, and then what happens to smaller organizations?"

Thomas Liberti, chief of the Florida health department's Bureau of HIV/AIDS in Tallahassee, says MOVERS is undergoing a "review," not strictly an audit, an evaluation that is necessary and not unusual for an agency that receives millions of dollars in public funds.

The AIDS Biz

"HIV-AIDS is a multimillion-dollar business, so it's competitive just like any other business or conglomerate," says long-time activist John Muhammad, currently chairman of the Miami-Dade HIV/AIDS Partnership, an appointed body established by the county commission to make funding distribution recommendations. The partnership has limited control over a large portion, but not all, of the approximately $127 million in federal funds going to service providers throughout the county. "It's survival of the fittest, and people in the African-American community have to come together. If people don't fight for their life they're going to lose it. Our [infection] numbers are going up and that's a clear indication there's something wrong. At the same time, because of the politics involved, a lot of [black organizations] would like to scream about the inequalities, but there's the fear if they start complaining too much there'll be a backlash. Maybe we'll lose even the little we do have.""Competition for the pie is part of the problem," says David Harvey, executive director of the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families in Washington, D.C. "The rest of the problem is longstanding systemic issues in our health-care system. Minority AIDS organizations have a lot of infrastructure and capacity-building needs. We have health facilities for the poorest of the poor, who are the ones now getting HIV, that are under-resourced. So you put HIV on top of institutions that are already being stressed, and you've got a real problem."

Adds Hilton of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, "Look at all the other things that simultaneously affect our community. Problems with housing, education, violence, with just being poor, what poverty does to a community. If your life is already in chaos, you got four or five kids, you don't know where your car note is coming from, you don't have the wherewithal to jump up and scream for equity in AIDS funding. Let's talk about higher rates of infant mortality, women dying of childbirth, we can go on and on. If you look at the numbers, the people getting sicker and dying quicker, they're going to be of African descent. One of the reasons AIDS has established such deep roots in our community is because you're talking about people who are already weakened."

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