Burning Down the House

After the closing of an apartment building for AIDS victims in Fort Lauderdale, the city's ability to oversee a multimillion-dollar, federally funded program is called into question

Witschen says he does not know why it took so long to find a new director of housing and community development. Filling that position, he explains, was the responsibility of the city's planning and economic development director, Scott Adams, who has since left city government. Witschen also cited staff turnover as the reason it took eight months to complete the investigation of Malie. Because many of the people who had intimate knowledge of HOPWA have left the city's employ, he says, it was difficult to reconstruct events and pinpoint exactly who was at fault. "The people that were most directly involved at that point weren't here to help provide the documentation for a review, and that had to be re-created," he adds.

But those on the receiving end of HOPWA funding are able to comment on Malie. Representatives of many nonprofit groups in the area say that she was a font of knowledge and often helped groups navigate the pitfalls of applying for grant money.

"She is a true advocate of the people of the city," says Geraldine Pipitone, executive director of House of Hope, which works primarily with people who have substance-abuse problems.

Richard Colbert, executive director of the AIDS-housing provider Shadowood II, has expressed interest in taking over the boarded-up apartment complex on SW 15th Avenue
Melissa Jones
Richard Colbert, executive director of the AIDS-housing provider Shadowood II, has expressed interest in taking over the boarded-up apartment complex on SW 15th Avenue

Richard Colbert, of Shadowood II, says that more than 80 percent of his group's budget comes from HOPWA grants. "Kathy Malie, from my point of view, has had an awful lot to do with our having success and becoming a success," he adds. "She's been aboveboard, honest, and fair with us all the way down the line."

In fact some AIDS-housing providers say that, since Malie's departure last November, they've had almost no contact with the city regarding the HOPWA program. Normally, according to grantees, the city holds meetings every April to discuss priorities for HOPWA funding. By September a request for proposals (RFP) is usually issued, and money is allocated by the start of the fiscal year -- October 1.

That's not the case this year. The first meeting didn't take place until June, when Faye Outlaw, who now oversees the HOPWA program, told grantees that the city was considering handing administration of the program back to the county. "It threw us all into kinda shock," says Colbert.

Ultimately the city commission -- noting the county's past problems in administering the HOPWA program -- voted, during a July 7 meeting, against letting the county administer the funds. "We'll be moving forward with that process and RFP-ing it," Outlaw now says. "We did not want to advance that process, given that there was that discussion."

Angelo Castillo, director of human services for Broward County, says his agency was enthusiastic about the possibility of running the HOPWA program. "The hope was to create a continuum of care that would include housing and services under one roof," he says.

Some AIDS groups worry, however, that, because the distribution process is late in getting under way this year, they may not get the funds they need in a timely fashion -- which is what happened when the county oversaw the grant program. According to the most recent HUD figures, as of May 1999 Fort Lauderdale had spent less than $7 million of the $15.3 million made available under the HOPWA program over the last four years.

"The HOPWA dollars are kind of up in the air," says Pipitone, of House of Hope. "Nobody knows what's going to happen at this point."

Tom Shidaker, executive director of Broward House, the county's largest provider of housing to people with AIDS, told city commissioners in July that its HOPWA-funded programs could begin to run short of money as early as March if steps weren't taken to jump-start the allocation process. He now says Outlaw has assured him HOPWA dollars will be made available to ensure that the group does not run out of money, even if it's done on a stopgap basis. "The city has told me on two different occasions that they will make sure funds are available," Shidaker says.

Adds Outlaw: "There will not be a single gap in funding for HOPWA."

No matter what happens with the HOPWA program, it is doubtful that Sunshine Health Center will ever benefit from its largesse again. You get only so many chances to squander a million dollars.

On a sunny September weekday morning, Dale Gibson is standing in front of Sunshine Health Center's yellow stucco clinic in Pompano Beach. Surrounding him is a group of elderly black women slowly making their way -- many via walkers and canes -- to a bus. Gibson, the center's executive director, is dressed in a pink shirt and smart tie. He smiles broadly and exchanges pleasantries with the ladies, making sure that their visit to Sunshine Health Center is a pleasant one.

"The challenge we face is getting the word out, marketing, letting people know we're open again," Gibson says later.

By any reasonable standard, Sunshine Health Center should not be open at all. Even before the nonprofit group faltered in its attempts to provide housing to people with AIDS, it was mired in controversy and financial disorder. At the end of 1997, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) canceled Sunshine's grant of almost $950,000 to provide medical care to poor people in the Pompano Beach area. The head of HRSA at the time noted, in a press release, that "the center failed to resolve serious fiscal, administrative and governance problems that compromised its ability to deliver high-quality health-care services."

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