As D.C. gives troubled AIDS groups millions, others struggle

When Leshelle Hicks came to Joseph's House, a D.C. hospice for people with HIV/AIDS and other terminal illnesses, her health was failing. Today, she believes the program saved her life.
By Debbie Cenziper
Monday, October 19, 2009

In a mint-green living room in Prince George's County, five scared women prepared to die.

It was 1987, and Pat Nalls had just learned she had AIDS. Complications from the disease had taken her husband and 3-year-old daughter. Grieving and sick, with two healthy children depending on her, Nalls had returned to the cemetery to buy a third plot for herself. She was 29.

Told she had less than two years to live, Nalls decided to post a flier in her doctor's office, hoping to connect to other women with AIDS.

She expected to die alone. But the phone started ringing.

In the beginning, they met in Nalls's living room over baked chicken and macaroni and cheese -- three, four, five women, talking about wills and weight loss, children and funerals. The calls kept coming, so Nalls found a space in a church basement and, later, an office on U Street NW in the District, creating a nonprofit group to support infected women that eventually employed 26 full-time staffers.

A decade later, she is packing again.

The Women's Collective, which has become known across the city for its prevention work and counseling, can no longer afford the rent even as the demand among homeless, hungry HIV-positive women continues to grow.

Faced with annual rent increases, Nalls found a cheaper office this year with more space, but she needs money to complete the renovation. She appealed to the District's HIV/AIDS Administration, but Director Shannon L. Hader turned her down.

"We just don't have the money for that kind of stuff," Hader told The Washington Post.

City funding for the Women's Collective has been cut in half since 2004, to about $375,000 annually.

"The bottom line," Nalls said, "is that women are suffering."

As the HIV/AIDS Administration funneled millions in recent years to groups cited for questionable spending and services, more established organizations in the District grappled with severe cash shortages, forced to whittle down programs desperately needed in a city with the highest rate of AIDS cases in the nation.

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