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Two of us: from left, Krystal Blair and Bruce Clarkson.
Photo: Chris Shields

And No One Profits
Budget constraints and fund-raising difficulties leave nonprofit service providers with little to give
By Travis Durfee

Five 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, who’d raved about the place. Bonnie told Blair that she’d 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.

“Everybody 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.

“It’s 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 up.”

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.

“The 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 a family.”

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 and coffee.

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 operating budget.

“It’s 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.

Doing the math: Doug Sauer.
Photo: Chris Shields

Unity 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 help elsewhere.

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.

“I 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 its mission.

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.

“Here 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 provide.”

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.

“There 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.

“At 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 statewide.

“There 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.

“The 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.

“I 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 prevention.”

The end of the line: A scene from Safety Zone’s goodbye party.
Photo: Chris Shields

A 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.

“Just 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.

“I’ve heard that the Gay and Lesbian Community Center will be offering a drop-in program,” Clarskon says, “but that’s in Albany.”

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 Dufresne.

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.

“All 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.

“I’ll 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.

“Some 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.”

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