It's T-shirt night at the Metro TeenAIDS drop-in center, where posters with slogans encouraging teenagers to get tested for HIV line the pastel blue and yellow walls.
Next to a row of mirrors on one wall, a few teenagers hover over blank T-shirts and a boombox, chatting quietly. A few feet away, the program's counselor arranges iron-on letters on a shirt to spell S-A-F-E S-E-X.
Tucked in a basement off Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the Metro TeenAIDS drop-in center has offered youth a place to go after school and advice on safe sex, drugs and decision making, in hopes of keeping teenagers safer in a city with the nation's highest HIV rate.
But because Metro TeenAIDS lost $250,000 in federal funding this spring, T-shirt night and other programs face an uncertain future.
Metro TeenAIDS is one of a few youth AIDS organizations in the area grappling with staff and program cuts after their federal grants expired this spring and they failed to win renewed funding. Metro TeenAIDS managers laid off three of four outreach and education specialists and are facing more program cuts.
It's the same story in Prince William County, where Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry is cutting youth education programs. NOVAM expects to reach 6,400 fewer teenagers with its school- and church-based activities this year.
The National Organization of Concerned Black Men is suspending its in-school HIV-prevention programs, which served about 1,200 students in the District and were launched as models for the organization's branches nationwide. And after losing $250,000 in funding from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Sasha Bruce Youthwork agency is cutting its street outreach service from five days a week to two and suspending a play about AIDS that it has performed at group homes and shelters in the District.
Funding losses for those four groups, the hardest hit in the area, total nearly $1 million. The organizations' grants were not renewed because of a new CDC initiative that focuses most available AIDS money on helping people who have HIV, rather than on preventive measures.
Leaders of the youth programs say the new policy neglects the needs of teenagers, and they worry that HIV rates among young people will surge in the coming years -- particularly in the District, where the rate of sexually active high school students is nearly a third higher than in the nation as a whole. Some leaders also say the funding cuts to their organizations reflect the Bush administration's discomfort with programs for teenagers that teach safe sex rather than abstinence.
But Robert Janssen, director of the CDC's HIV-prevention programs, said it's a question of limited resources. The reality is that the disease is far more prevalent among older Americans, and that's where the money should go, he said.
"This is very much a disease of people in their twenties, thirties and forties," Janssen said. "It always has been."
CDC grants for HIV prevention are being awarded to 142 organizations this year, compared with 189 last year, and the size of the average grant has increased from $200,000 to $345,000.
People such as Adam Tenner disagree with the CDC's rationale. Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, said young people in the District are at great risk because of the city's high HIV incidence -- 119 new cases per 100,000 residents annually, according to a report last year -- and high rates of sexual activity among the city's teenagers.
The organization uses counselors in their early 20s and peers such as Patrick Green, 17, to spread that message. A senior at Eastern Senior High School, Green leads "HIV 101s" for teenagers across the city.
"I let youth know what I know with HIV statistics," he said. "It's serious. It's very serious for the Washington, D.C., area. We have the highest population of HIV-AIDS."
The goal is to reach such people as Robert Gorham, 15. Gorham began spending most afternoons at the drop-in center last year because it was "a nice place to be." He said he especially enjoyed participating in its open-mic activities but also ended up learning about HIV. He already knew some about the disease but said he "was blind to" how serious it is and how easily it can be spread. Now he worries that activities that could prompt other teenagers to learn about HIV will be cut. "The less funding we have, the less opportunities we have and things we have to do," Gorham said.
Lydia Robinson, 21, one of the laid-off outreach and education specialists, first came to the drop-in center when she was a student at Eastern. She said the program helped her make changes in her sexual behavior and learn to care for her older brother, who she said contracted HIV from intravenous drug use. Until this spring, she ran prevention activities for girls and helped lead outreach efforts, including handing out condoms in her Capitol Hill neighborhood. She still works at the center, but as a volunteer.
Other agencies have made similar cuts.
After paring down their staff from 22 to 18, NOVAM leaders decided to cut programs in Prince William because they did not receive funds from the county to offset the loss of federal money. NOVAM raised about $100,000 from other sources but is another $100,000 short of its previous budget.
Last year, NOVAM provided programs serving about 26,000 young people in the area and trained about 150 high school students to be peer educators. In one program, called Face to Face, peer educators visited high school classrooms, accompanied by two people who live with HIV, to talk about decision making.
"Our huge fear is that . . . the number of young people who are infected is going to spike, and we won't know that until it's too late," said NOVAM's executive director, Nathan Monell.
George Garrow, director of the National Organization of Concerned Black Men, said he is still "frantically running around" this summer to try to replace all of the $225,000 the group had received annually under its recently expired grant. If it cannot do so, the organization will suspend a school program called Educated Choices for Healthy Outcomes, in which leaders talk to students at about 15 schools about sexually transmitted diseases, responsibility and "essentially taking care of themselves," Garrow said.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork is still determining how it will continue its prevention efforts without federal funding, which it had relied on for 14 years, said Darryl Sanders, director of HIV-prevention services. The organization used to reach about 1,500 young people a year through a program that offered literature, condoms and referral services, and another 1,500 through HIV-prevention programs in schools and a play called "It Won't Happen to Me." Now, the play no longer tours and the outreach service has been cut back.
"It's really alarming what the potential outcome of this whole thing could be. No one is taking it lightly," Sanders said.
"We know the need is there, so we're still going to do whatever we can do to provide the needed service to the District of Columbia," he said.