of us: from left, Krystal Blair and Bruce Clarkson.
Photo: Chris Shields
No One Profits
Budget constraints and fund-raising difficulties leave
nonprofit service providers with little to give
By Travis Durfee
years ago, Krystal Blair attended her first party at the
Safety Zone, a teen drop-in center for transgender, gay
and sexually questioning youth in Troy.
Blair was 14 and it was a Halloween party. She went at the
suggestion of her friend Bonnie, a bisexual, whod
raved about the place. Bonnie told Blair that shed
like the people who hung out at the Safety Zone. They were
friendly and the place was safe, which was important.
M ost of Blair’s friends were either gay or bisexual—a difficult
way to be in high school. Blair remembers that her friends
often were shouted at or taunted, and sometimes shoved into
lockers. She recalls that one of her openly gay friends
zigged and zagged from certain hallways in between classes
trying to avoid certain groups of kids.
Though she was unsure of her own sexuality at the time,
Blair remembers that her bisexuality was budding. “I started
to get attracted to one of my friend’s friends,” she recalls,
seated in one of Safety Zone’s plush couches. “But I was
like, ‘Wait a minute, she’s a girl! What am I doing?’ [But]
I remember thinking, all right, I don’t want to get picked
on, so I’m not going to come out right now, I’m going to
keep it to myself.”
Gay kids in Troy High also faced a subtler, less direct
form of bullying.
in Troy High School says ‘gay’ or ‘faggot’ and crap like
that,” Blair says. “We had teachers who’d say, ‘You guys
are being so gay.’ I was like, ‘Wow, you’re supposed to
be a teacher.’ ”
Bruce Clarkson, who runs the Safety Zone for the nonprofit
Unity House, says he has witnessed the same. Clarkson coordinates
the Safety Zone’s HIV/AIDS-prevention programs, which often
involves giving talks in area high schools. On some of those
visits Clarkson says he witnessed gay-bashing, both casually
and explicitly, and teachers allowing it to carry on. Often
he had to be the one to make an issue of it.
just so in people’s vernacular these days,” Clarkson says.
“High school is such a shitty, bad place and being a gay
adolescent just makes it that much more difficult. I wish
I had a place like Safety Zone to come to when I was growing
For the past eight years, Unity House has run the Safety
Zone to offer a safe place for Troy’s fringe kids. “We typically
get the 6-foot-4 kids with purple hair and a face full of
metal,” as Clarkson puts it.
Zone was the place where the gay kids could come not to
be the gay kids,” says Blair, who’s religiously spent time
at the Safety Zone over past five years. “They know that
everybody down here is not going to judge them and they’re
not going to make fun of them. We’re family in some sort.
A very dysfunctional family,” she chuckles, “but we’re still
The Zone’s familial vibe is apparent in the drop-in center’s
décor. Picture frames overflow with photos of old friends
who’ve moved elsewhere. In between the photo galleries,
colorful collages adorn the walls showing shirtless male
models, images of lips smoking cigarettes and sexual phrases
arranged ransom-note style.
In the back of the Safety Zone, the hands of dozens upon
dozens of visitors, Xeroxed and signed, cover the walls
and ceiling. Comfortable couches and chairs share floor
space with a pile of beanbags. A giant metal shelving unit
serves as an entertainment center holding a television,
stereo, a few video-game systems and books. Magazine racks
hold HIV/AIDS-prevention and safe-sex literature, and copies
of The Advocate and Out magazine. The
fridge near the microwave and toaster oven holds snacks
Besides having found a comfortable hangout, Blair says she’s
learned a lot from her time at the Safety Zone. Before coming
to the Safety Zone she knew nothing about the dangers of
HIV/AIDS. “I didn’t know ways you could get it,” she says.
“I didn’t know ways you could avoid it.”
But she can tell you all about that now. Over the past five
years, Blair has completed four, five-hour training sessions
with Unity House and is now a peer educator. Blair talks
with other kids at the Safety Zone, and in high schools
and youth centers around the Capital Region, about safe
sex and the dangers of HIV and AIDS. A self-professed slacker
in high school who preferred spending her days at the mall,
Blair graduated from Troy High last spring and thought she
might have found her calling working at the Safety Zone
as an HIV/AIDS educator or counselor.
But that was before Safety Zone lost almost all of its funding.
Earlier this year, the New York State AIDS Institute, which
has funded the Safety Zone since 1995, sent Unity House
a letter saying that the program’s grant would not be renewed
for the coming year. Due to New York’s budget crisis, the
AIDS Institute was restructuring the way it doled out funds,
giving only larger grants to programs serving larger cities.
Troy didn’t make the cut. Unity House lost $65,000 of the
Safety Zone’s funding—87 percent of the program’s annual
rare to see this,” says Christopher Burke, executive director
of Unity House. “What typically happens is you get no fund
increase from the year prior, so it’s like you’re working
with less money. But this is unprecedented.”
Though Unity House will continue to fund the Safety Zone’s
education and prevention programs, the teen drop-in center
has been considerably pared back. Until it finds a new source
of money, the program will be available only one day a week
(as opposed to five previously), and it will take place
in a conference room at Unity House’s main offices—a far
cry from the decorated and cozy space teens like Blair called
their home away from home.
the math: Doug Sauer.
Photo: Chris Shields
House is not alone in its funding troubles. Between a downturn
in the national economy and a state budget crisis that is
pushing myriad costs onto already-stretched county budgets,
many nonprofit organizations are feeling the crunch.
Nonprofits are typically funded from three sources—private
foundation grants, government money and personal donations.
In the current economic climate, all three are shrinking,
but government money is in particularly high demand.
Prior to the attacks that destroyed the World Trade towers,
high-profile accounting scandals and an imploding stock
market were already contributing to an increasingly shaky
U.S. economy. While economists predicted revenue losses
in the billions following the Sept. 11 attacks, President
Bush pushed Congress for a like amount for a “war on terrorism”
and another round of tax cuts. Two years later, Congress
is facing a $500-billion annual budget deficit, and many
say that spending for social programs is in danger.
The state’s economy doesn’t provide much comfort. Since
New York City was the epicenter of both the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks and the faltering stock market, the state has been
dealt more than its fair share of the general downturn in
the economy. After contentious budget discussions earlier
this year, New York state overcame a budget deficit of more
than $10 billion with a mix of tax and fee increases and
service cuts. By some estimates the state faces an additional
$5 to $6 billion deficit again this coming year.
To make matters worse, the state has lost 212,600 private-sector
jobs over the last two years, according to statistics from
the New York State Department of Labor. The state’s unemployment
rate has jumped to 6.1 percent, up from 4.8 percent two
years ago. More unemployed workers means more families struggling
and more people uninsured—more people who need to look for
Elsewhere, as in those same struggling nonprofits. If the
pantheon of government-run social-service programs contains
the country’s rising tide of social ills, nonprofits are
the fingers in that crumbling dam. They provide important
services to communities that are neglected by existing government
programs: food pantries, homeless shelters, drug and alcohol
rehab centers, runaway shelters and street outreach vans.
Now they are trying to provide more of all these services
with less funding, says Doug Sauer, executive director of
the Council of Community Services of New York State, Inc.
don’t think it is widely understood right now what the depth
of the problem is,” said Sauer. “If you connect the cuts
in government funding, with less and less foundation money,
a rougher fund-raising environment, and tie that in with
increasing poverty and demand for government services, you’re
not painting a very nice picture.”
Hunger Action Network of New York State, a nonprofit that
fights hunger and poverty, is a good example. “We had a
cold winter and there was a leap in oil prices and some
people were not able to pay their bills. This is sending
more people to food pantries and homeless shelters that
are now financially strapped,” said Mark Dunlea, Hunger
Action’s associate director.
Hunger Action learned earlier this year that it would not
be receiving some of the grants it had expected. To avoid
layoffs, Dunlea says the group has been forced to ask some
staffers to cut back their hours.
Programs at Homeless and Traveler’s Aid Society also went
unfunded this year, including a jail-diversion project for
mentally ill clients, says the group’s director of development,
Maggie Fusco. The organization, which offers a variety of
programs to teach the homeless marketable skills, has been
shuffling employees to other programs to keep from laying
people off. Looking for resources elsewhere, HATAS is developing
a program to woo volunteers that could help the group meet
Erin O’Brien is the executive director of the Women’s Building,
which provides a variety of resources and referrals for
women and their families in the Capital Region. Seeing a
significant decrease in individual donations and a saturated
grant market at a time when government funding is sparse,
O’Brien says that trying to secure funds for her organization
is like squeezing water from a stone.
are all of these nonprofit organizations, and we are providing
these programs for gaps in public service, and if we go
under, these gaps might not get filled,” O’Brien says. “If
you want to talk homeland security, there is no way to make
the homeland [more] secure than to fund the services we
Although the current eco-nomic climate is unusually bleak,
Sauer says there’s an underlying reason that social programs
are the first to get cut. The problem, he says, is that
these programs are typically targeted to populations that
don’t hold much political clout.
is still an attitude out there that these programs are a
drain on tax dollars, that the programs are for people that
aren’t taxpayers, that the people served on the social-services
side harm property values, you don’t want them in your neighborhood,
this NIMBYism,” Sauer says. “Certainly you see more and
more dollars going toward economic development and tax breaks
to industry, and my perception is that those tax breaks
are coming by and large out of the nonprofit sector.”
So it is not as if the aforementioned nonprofits have burned
bridges or are not providing services worth funding—there
is actually less money going around. According to
budget numbers provided by David R. Polan, commissioner
of Albany County’s Department of Management and Budget,
many departments within the county decreased funding to
social-service nonprofits over the last two years.
Funding for nonprofit organizations from Albany County’s
Department of Social Services decreased by just over $1
million from 2002 to 2003, approximately 17 percent of all
funding to nonprofit service providers by the county. The
funding covered centers for disabled adults and programs
for drug and alcohol treatment and preventative family planning.
The county’s Department of Mental Health and Division of
Children with Special Needs also decreased funding to nonprofits
by more than 15 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
the local level you’re really seeing not-for-profits struggle,”
Sauer says. “I think it is important to understand that
local funding had already gone through a lot of cuts and
will continue to suffer a lot more cuts this coming year.
You look at Albany County, they cut a lot of dollars for
a lot of nonprofits and they’re still in a deficit. So what
are they going to do next year?”
At least one source of government funding for nonprofits,
discretionary funds—commonly referred to as “member-item
money” or “pork”—has been relatively easy to track from
this year’s state budget. The money is sitting in a lockbox
awaiting the governor’s signature.
Gov. George E. Pataki has yet to sign off on the $200 million
allocated for individual legislators’ discretionary spending.
The governor claims he is holding onto the funds because
the Assembly didn’t appropriate the money constitutionally,
but others say the governor is still angered that the Legislature
overrode his budget vetoes.
Though discretionary funds have earned a bad rap among good-government
types for allowing state legislators to freely spread money
around their districts, many say that this “pork” is also
a crucial source of funding for nonprofit organizations
are groups out there that are scraping by, laying off people
and trying to figure out how they’re going to continue to
fund their programs, and the governor is holding these funds,”
says Ron Deustch, executive director of the Statewide Emergency
Network of Social and Economic Services, an antipoverty
nonprofit organization and advocacy group.
touchy thing is a lot of groups don’t want to create press
around this issue—you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds
you,” Deustch continues, “but it’s pretty clear at this
point that the governor is the one holding up these funds.”
On Sept. 10, Deustch and a number of other nonprofits held
a press conference in Albany pleading with the governor
to release the funds. The stir may have influenced the state
Senate, which on Sept. 16 passed a budget-cleanup bill looking
to appease the governor and hurry the release of the discretionary
funds. Now the Assembly must do the same. Whether those
discretionary funds will be released anytime soon remains
unclear; in any case, Sauer says, it will take more than
$200 million to adequately fund the services that many nonprofits
provide throughout the state.
don’t think they understand the economics of trying to prevent
kids from alcohol or drug abuse or keeping them in their
homes as opposed to putting them into a child-welfare agency,”
Sauer says. “I don’t think they understand issues that result
from not feeding or caring for a kid and then you’ve got
to deal with them in special education within the school
system. I think people don’t understand the economics of
end of the line: A scene from Safety Zones goodbye
Photo: Chris Shields
few weeks ago, Krystal Blair attended her last party at
the Safety Zone—a goodbye party, a way to give the kids
a sense of closure.
Beneath a web of streamers and balloons, Blair and her friends
lounge around, snacking and laughing while others play foosball.
Blair has decorated, made punch and helped lay out the food:
veggies and dip, fruit and cheese, punch and soda.
the fact that it’s closing is trauma,” Blair says. “We have
kids starting high school now that need this place. It’s
not even really that this place was education-based; it’s
fun and it’s safe.”
Blair is concerned about the younger gay or questioning
kids entering Troy High this fall. Due to its own budget
cuts, the school no longer employs social workers, and Blair
recalls that it was difficult to start a gay-straight alliance
when she was in school. “People were always ripping down
the signs,” she says. “It was just hard to let people know
where to go.” Without the Safety Zone, there is one place
fewer to turn.
heard that the Gay and Lesbian Community Center will be
offering a drop-in program,” Clarskon says, “but that’s
Near a set of plaques honoring the Safety Zone for its community
service, Clarkson chats with Pat Gogol, who ran a similar
program in Schenectady County that was also cut earlier
this year by the AIDS Institute. At a time when teen pregnancy
and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases were on
the rise in Schenectady County, Gogol was angered that programs
like hers would no longer exist. “We need kids talking to
kids about these issues,” she says.
At the party, a blank T-shirt is tacked to a wall in the
hallway, and markers are available for anyone who wants
to sign a goodbye. “I will miss Safety Zone & everyone
here,” writes incoming Troy High School 9th grader Katie
Occasionally playing with the sandy-brown bowl cut she’d
striped lime-green, Dufresne says her excitement about entering
high school soon faded when she heard that the Troy School
District would be closing its alternative high school, Doyle.
the juvenile misfits are gonna be there cracking their knuckles.
Its gonna be out of control,” says Dufresne, a lesbian.
“It’s horrible to do to the gay people and the weaker people.
It’s stupid, really. But maybe after people start getting
beaten up they’ll get the picture.”
Dufresne has been coming to Safety Zone for the past few
years, and hoped that Unity House would find a way to reopen
the program on a daily basis.
help out and do what I can,” Dufresne says, “but I’m only
a kid, you know. I don’t really have any connections to
big companies or funding or anything like that.”
Blair, too, says she’d like to like to try saving the Safety
Zone. She has been in touch with friends in national student-run
gay advocacy groups to see if they could help. Blair says
that everybody she talked to seemed interested in helping.
kids made some posters that said, ‘Save Safety Zone,’ and
we were going to hang them up for the party, but the amount
of money that we need is outrageous,” Blair says. “I think
maybe would could have like a benefit concert or something
that could help raise some money, but I don’t think I could
do it by myself. I’d need some help.”