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Staggering need, striking neglect

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A three-part documentary explores troubled AIDS groups and the lives affected by a lack of adequate care.

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By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

In a city ravaged by the highest rate of AIDS cases in the nation, the D.C. Health Department paid millions to nonprofit groups that delivered substandard services or failed to account for any work at all, even as sick people searched for care or died waiting.

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More than $1 million in AIDS money went to a housing group whose ailing boarders sometimes struggled without electricity, gas or food. A supervisor said she was ordered to create records for ghost employees.

About $400,000 was paid to a nonprofit organization, launched by a man who once ran one of the District's largest cocaine rings, for a promised job-training center that has never opened.

More than $500,000 was earmarked for a housing program whose executive director had a string of convictions for theft, drugs and forgery. After the D.C. Inspector General's Office could find no evidence that he was operating an AIDS nonprofit group, the city terminated the grant but never sought repayment.

All told, the Health Department's HIV/AIDS Administration awarded more than $25 million from 2004 to 2008 to nonprofit agencies marked by questionable spending, a lack of clients, or lapses in record-keeping and care, a 10-month Washington Post investigation found. Many of the groups have since closed or are no longer providing AIDS services.

Across the city, the sick are suffering.

Renee Paige, 50, once threw birthday parties for her two daughters in her apartment in Southeast Washington, where she'd cook beef stew for elderly neighbors and always had bus fare for a friend. But AIDS and two bouts of pneumonia had left her weak, homeless and unable to care for herself.

She came to a community meeting in April after spending the night on a park bench in heavy rain, with no place to go.

"I have AIDS," she told the group, "and I am soaking wet."

Weeks later, she died alone, on the bench, one mile from the HIV/AIDS Administration and within two miles of a dozen nonprofit groups that help people with AIDS.

"I couldn't understand," said Keena Stewart, who had known Paige for 15 years. "How could she die like that?"

More than 15,000 people have HIV or AIDS in the District, 3 percent of the population older than 12. For black men, the rate is more than double, at 6.5 percent -- one of every 15 people.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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