Troubled groups get millions while well-regarded ones like Women's Collective teeter

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.

At the nonprofit Miriam's House in Northwest Washington, which offers transitional housing for infected and homeless women, Executive Director Carol Marsh wants to hire another personal care aide to help a full house of 15 clients cook, clean and dress. But she doesn't have the money. "These women deserve the best we can give them, and if services are not being provided . . . it's appalling," Marsh said.

Across town at the nonprofit Metro TeenAIDS in Southeast, officials want to increase their youth staff and buy a mobile unit to do more HIV testing at churches, housing projects and recreation centers.

"People aren't getting tested," said Deputy Director Molly Singer. "People don't know their HIV status. We need to make it easy to get tested."

At the Women's Collective, the phones ring nonstop, and on many mornings, a line of women and children waits at the front door for the office to open. They come hungry, so Nalls sets out platters of chicken and pasta. While Nalls packed for the move in June, a team of outreach workers was on the streets handing out condoms, toothbrushes and soap.

The move into a larger, less-expensive office on Rhode Island Avenue NE will help the group cut costs and serve more clients. Nalls has found a lawyer and an architect who have donated their time to help.

But Nalls is short $200,000 for the construction. She has temporarily moved the agency into two four-bedroom apartments in Northeast. The cash crunch has been frustrating, and on some days, she forgets about the disease that she has outlived for 20 years.

Nalls thinks that she contracted AIDS from her husband, who had abused drugs while in the U.S. Air Force a decade before they were married. Before they became sick, Nalls and her husband worked at a nonprofit group that lobbied on behalf of hungry and homeless people. They had three children; the older two were healthy.

Her daughter, Alana, was 8 when Nalls began talking to other infected women, at first through a secret phone line that she had installed in their house. During meetings, Alana would play with the other children in the yard and began to realize that when one stopped coming, it usually meant another mother had died.

That's when she would worry about her own mother, whose weight at one point dropped to 80 pounds.

Growing up became a series of hopes and milestones. She wanted her mother to attend her high school graduation, then see her through college. Now 30, Alana is a human resources director at an architectural firm and just bought a home.

"This was a woman who was told that she was not going to live, and she built this great program," Alana said. "That's what keeps her going, knowing that these women really depend on her to fight for them and to be a voice for them. Everybody has a purpose, and this was her purpose."


Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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