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BEHIV not answering lingering questions
by Joseph Erbentraut

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While it's been just over a month since Chicago-based HIV/AIDS service organization Better Existence With HIV (BEHIV) announced it would be closing its doors after more than two decades of service, lingering questions of how the organization will tie up its many loose ends have remained largely unanswered to this point.

As of this printing, BEHIV's website still suggests the organization has continued its normal operations and events like free HIV/AIDS testing and fundraisers for the organization, including its Red Hot Cabaret benefit originally scheduled for March 19 at the Union League Club. A tool allowing for donations to be made to the organization also remains functional.

BEHIV also has declined to allow press at its most recent board meetings, including one rumored to be scheduled for Jan. 25, but held, instead, a day earlier at a location not revealed to Windy City Times.

Julie Supple, BEHIV's interim executive director, said late last month that the board meeting was "a final meeting to wrap up" the 21 years of the organization's records and other affairs. Supple added that the priority in bringing BEHIV's activities to a close has been ensuring their housing, case management and other clients have been referred to other agencies.

She added on Jan. 25 that the organization's website would be updated to reflect its closure "soon" with a notice similar to the Jan. 14 press release they issued to local media.

"There is a lot to do and a lot of our staff are not here, so there are all kinds of things to do," Supple said. "We've been putting the crux of our time into making sure our clients are taken care of."

Supple also said that Chicago House has taken on a large number of BEHIV's cases and some of its housing contracts. Supple also said she did not understand why the AIDS Foundation denied informing BEHIV of a "pending decision" to suspend funding allocation to agencies like BEHIV without an on-site medical clinic. Supple maintains this is what the Foundation told former executive director Eric Nelson.

Financial pressures clearly played a large role in BEHIV's decision to abruptly close its doors, but the organization's leadership has yet to address any specific financial concerns besides its relationship with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Among the lingering concerns are a $133,615 line of credit listed on both on the organization's 2008 federal tax return and its most recent report issued to the Illinois attorney general's office as well as grants issued late last year by the Blue Cross/Blue Shield or Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

In response to financial concerns, Supple said BEHIV Board President Matthew Gibbs would address both the line of credit and grants. At press time, Gibbs did not respond to our repeated inquiries on the matter.

Robyn Ziegler, the press secretary for the attorney general's office, said BEHIV had not yet informed them of their closing and that they had missed the Dec. 31 deadline for filing their 2010 report outlining the organization's financial affairs. Ziegler added, however, that it is common for closing non-profits to wind up their affairs before contacting their office and that they have not initiated any sort of review as of yet.

The Rev. Stan Sloan, CEO of Chicago House, confirmed BEHIV's assertion that his organization was in the process of taking over the majority of BEHIV's housing in addition to many of their case management clients. He said the process of taking in the new clients has been "difficult" but was "only a shadow of how difficult it's been on [BEHIV's] end."

"This isn't good news for anybody to lose an agency with 21 years of history as a partner," Sloan said. "It's very sad for us and we want to help out in any way that we can."

Sloan added that in his 11 years of leading Chicago House, the funding environment for his organization, as well as many non-profit groups throughout the city, has "never been as difficult" as it is today. At the same time, the community needs and number of clients they are serving have never been greater, he added.

"It's true across the board in our community. Now is a time when we all need to be working together and making sure people in need still have the services they require," Sloan said.

Vital Bridges co-founder and food program coordinator Lori Cannon agreed the time has arrived for HIV/AIDS organizations to be truly transparent with any financial struggles and to begin working together, or merging, in order to prevent outcomes like what BEHIV experienced.

"There wasn't a finer grassroots community-based program than BEHIV and no one takes great pleasure in this so let's make it right," Cannon said. "I worry about the clients. So much has been taken away from them and it is misplaced arrogance when they're [organizations are] not open and honest, giving everyone a song and dance when everyone knows what's coming down."

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