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Borough President, Council Support New Bronx LGBT Initiatives

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Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., last month with Eunic Ortiz, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City. | GRACE CHU
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., last month with Eunic Ortiz, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City. | GRACE CHU

Capital budget allocations that Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., is due to announce in coming weeks demonstrate the increased attention that the needs of the LGBT community there are receiving from his administration as well as from out gay City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, a freshman legislator who represents a central Bronx district.

Both Diaz and Torres are allocating funds for two new LGBT initiatives — the development of an LGBT-friendly senior housing facility spearheaded by SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Seniors, and a medical facility that the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center will establish in partnership with Boom!Health, a Bronx-based agency that provides a broad range of health, social, and legal services.

Diaz, who is providing $600,000 to the SAGE project and $100,000 to the Callen-Lorde clinic, said, “These are two projects that I am very excited about,” adding they are “unique projects that provide much needed help in the LGBTQ community.”

$1.4 million in capital funds to support SAGE senior housing, Callen-Lorde medical care

The borough president’s capital budget totals $34.45 million and will fund more than 100 projects.

For his part, Torres is also contributing $600,000 to the SAGE project and $100,000 for the Callen-Lorde/ Boom!Health initiative, out of a total pot of $5 million in discretionary funds available to him.

Saying he is “very pleased” with Diaz’s support for the project, Michael Adams, SAGE’s executive director, noted that while the location of the senior housing facility has not yet been announced, it will not be in Torres’ district, which, he said, “shows just how much leadership Ritchie is showing on senior LGBT issues.”

Last year, Torres led the effort to get $1.5 million in Council funding for new SAGE centers in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island and to expand services in the group’s Harlem site and at a Queens LGBT senior center operated separately from SAGE.

Even as he voiced gratitude for the financial support from Diaz and Torres, Adams said, “We need the city to continue to show support. We’re somewhat disappointed that we did not receive an allocation from the rest of the Council.”

Adams explained that much of the $30 million estimated cost of building the 80 or more units of housing SAGE is creating — in partnership with HELP USA, a nationwide non-profit housing advocacy and development organization that will own the building — will financed through federal low-income tax credits. There is, however, a gap of about $5 million that needs to be financed from other sources. Since the project will be developed in phases, Adams said the financing can also be put together over time, but in order to move to the next phase — where the project can win approval from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and be presented to the local community board — $3 million of the total $5 million gap must be in place. The Diaz and Torres allocations only get the project 40 percent of the way.

“We recognize the budget context we’re in,” Adams said, acknowledging the many demands on the public purse. “But we’re in conversations with the Council and the de Blasio administration. This has been stated as a priority in the mayor’s affordable housing plan. We know the de Blasio administration cares a lot about this project.”

SAGE hopes to break ground in 2016, with an opening the following year, but Adams said that timetable could be pushed back if the goal of lining up the $3 million portion of the funding gap this year is not met.

Callen-Lorde, the health care agency that has served the LGBT community out of Chelsea for decades, was approached last year by Boom!Health asking that it provide the direct medical care portion of a new five-story multi-service facility it was planning for Third Avenue near 161st Street in the Melrose section of the Bronx.

Boom!Health was created in 2013 out of the merger of Bronx AIDS Services and CitiWide Harm Reduction, and it provides a wide array of services, including HIV and hepatitis C prevention and harm reduction, out of three other Bronx facilities.

John Hellman, a spokesperson for the group, explained that the new facility, recently opened as the Wellness Center, is aimed at serving the LGBT community as well as families and women. The Center will offer prevention services, a program for navigating PrEP, drugs used by HIV-negative people to avoid infection, overall health services, and job training and college readiness programs. With a heavy programming emphasis on the LGBT community, Hellman said, Callen-Lorde had the strongest credentials for providing the Center’s direct medical care.

Wendy Stark, who recently returned to her former post as executive director at Callen-Lorde, said the invitation to collaborate fit perfectly with her agency’s strategic thinking. The two clinics the group currently runs on 17th and 18th Streets serve more than 15,000, about 1,200 of whom live in the Bronx. But in trying to better serve the city’s LGBT community, she said, “There is an overarching capacity problem, and the physical plant is key among them. Our best policy is partnership. Growth is going to have to happen with different strategies.”

Real estate costs, particularly in Manhattan, make partnering a desirable route, but Stark emphasized that Callen-Lorde’s new relationship with Boom!Health also makes “overall programmatic sense,” given the Bronx agency’s expertise in delivering comprehensive services to the local community.

Callen-Lorde’s medical unit will occupy a portion of the first floor of the building Boom!Health is currently renovating, and will have six exam rooms. Stark estimated that capacity could serve up to about 3,000 clients on an ongoing basis. She said the unit would be staffed by between 20 and 25 new Callen-Lorde staffers.

The build-out of the medical space will cost Callen-Lorde about $2 million, so the grants from Diaz and Torres account for only 10 percent of the total needed. Gay philanthropist Henry van Ameringen has offered a challenge grant, matching dollar for dollar contributions of up to $500,000, and the agency is seeking additional foundation and private support for the project.

“We are honored that Boom!Health reached out to us for the medical piece of their new facility,” Stark said.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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