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Latino HIV/AIDS Service Organization Closes San Diego Center

by Megan Barnes
Contributor
Monday Oct 10, 2011
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After 10 years serving Latinos and LGBT Latinos with HIV, Bienestar San Diego was forced to close its doors on Sept. 30 under continued financial strain.

A branch of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Bienestar (Spanish for "well-being,") the center provided health and wellness services, testing, prevention education and assistance for LGBT Latinos living with HIV/AIDS in San Diego.

"It’s a big loss not only for the agency, but for the Latino community in San Diego because it was the only Latino-based [HIV service] organization," said Victor Martinez, director of programs and public affairs at Bienestar. "Funding is getting tighter and tighter while the need from the community is increasing."

Since the state slashed AIDS funding two years ago, the center depended on a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When Bienestar didn’t receive a new grant this year to cover costs at the San Diego center, the decision was made to shut its doors.

"It is with great sadness that we close our operations during a time when we know our community needs us most," said Oscar De La O, executive director of Bienestar. "Cutbacks in funding have left us no other choice but to close. Thankfully, we are fortunate enough to have other existing centers in Southern California that will continue to offer services during these increasingly difficult economic times."

Two other Bienestar centers were also forced to close last year.

In a letter to supporters and donors, De La O detailed the impact of the center’s closing.

"Fewer HIV tests will be administered, fewer syringes will be exchanged, fewer support groups for Latino LGBT youth, and housing assistance and other services for the HIV-positive community," he wrote.

Bienestar is now looking to find new sources of funding to eventually reopen the center. It has eight other locations throughout Southern California; the closest to San Diego is now 100 miles away in Long Beach. Clients at the center were referred to other agencies and its employees have since returned to school.

Antonio Munoz, who was program director at the center for six years, said his last day was a sad one.

"It was a familia, so a lot of the clients are very sad," he said. "It’s really sad to lose a people of color, community-based agency and it’s detrimental for the community."

He helped transform Bienestar San Diego into a thriving community center engaging in outreach, activism and serving 1,500 clients annually.

In addition to critical resources lost, Munoz and Martinez say the community will lose a safe space that provided services in a non-clinical setting catering to the specific needs of the Latino community.

Martinez added it will take time for that trust and understanding to be developed between the community and other HIV/AIDS agencies.

"It’s not enough to be able to speak the language, they also have to understand the culture, so it will be a process and it will take time for this community that we’ve developed to feel comfortable with other organizations," he said.

He said Latinos with HIV have particular needs and concerns-including stigma and effective prevention efforts.

"About 70 percent of Latinos develop AIDS within 12 months of HIV infection, and about 40 percent find out they’re HIV positive when they already have AIDS, so we really want to identify HIV in Latinos early," said Martinez.

Munoz hopes Bienestar can ultimately secure funding to reopen the center, but said he and others in the community are empowered to continue to create powerful change. They plan to collaborate with other agencies in the area to put on events reaching out to the Latino community.

"Physically we are closed, but our voice is still here," he said. "We plan to continue to advocate for the community."

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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