Whatever Happened to GMHC?

“First in the fight against AIDS,” as it long billed itself, the New York agency once known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis is sinking under a huge rent on unused space, a vacuum of leadership, the dimming of its voice in HIV prevention, and criticism from all sides. Can it possibly right itself?



Above: GMHC's annual AIDS Walk

But in recent years, amid a background of skyrocket- ing rents and federal funding cuts under sequestration, the agency has suffered more woes. The largest by far involves the new space—a deal that Dr. Marjorie Hill, a towering, poised, lesbian African-American former city public health official who helmed GMHC from 2006-2013, pushed through despite opposition from a core group of clients who didn’t want to leave its longtime Chelsea home. Those clients called on Kramer to lead a protest rally outside the old build- ing. Over lunch at GMHC, Hill mollified Kramer, telling him the move was for the best. Kramer backed off, only to decry the move again when he learned Hill was planning on jettisoning GMHC’s hot lunch program (which she ultimately didn’t do).

“There was no transparency about the move, no communication,” says Victor Benadava, 51, HIV-positive since 2000, who was chair of GMHC’s client advisory board when the move was on the table. “Dr. Hill was always smiling, but everything was done in secret.” GMHC claims that most clients supported the move, but many say clients complained vocally about early reports that the new building would require GMHC clients to enter by a separate portal, suggesting they were pariahs, and that it wouldn’t allow a full kitchen or on-site medical facilities such as HIV testing and counseling, long a key component of GMHC.

“Marjorie was obsessed with the idea of instead having a stylish café space that served soups and panini—a space she’d want to have lunch in herself,” says a former staffer. “Half the clients didn’t even know what panini was. It took her a long time to really understand that clients wanted that hot lunch. It was the only meal of the day for some of them.”

HIV testing did not survive the move to the new space; GMHC had to rent a facility on nearby West 29th Street. The lounge in the new space was outfitted with furniture donated from the trendy Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, and the organization touted the fact that the space, formerly TV studios, came equipped with dozens of soundproof rooms, perfect for confidential counseling. But there was still the matter of the square footage, which felt extravagant for an agency that says it serves over 9,000 people a year but which insiders have said that, if you count clients who actually show up regularly, is more like 1,000.

“We did the homework telling them they could do with less space, but they chose more, with the aspiration to keep growing,” says David Valdez, a Goldman Sachs exec who joined GMHC’s board to broker, pro bono, the real estate deal. He’s since left the board but insists the deal was a good one, freeing GMHC from a villainous landlord at a bargain rate given its proximity to Penn Station, a citywide transit hub. A new subway extension which is scheduled to open in summer 2014 will extend the 7 line from its current end at Times Square into the Far West Side, just a couple of blocks from GMHC. According to Valdez GMHC’s current rent is essentially locked in until 2018 at which point it will go up, but just how much nobody knows yet. He feels GMHC stands a good chance of being able to negotiate yielding half of the space, vastly reducing the rent. “Now they have an opportunity to fix it, and they have an amazing, valuable asset they can trade back to the market or to their landlord.”

Left: Founder Larry Kramer

Late in 2013 board chair Mickey Rolfe said in a statement, “The board of directors believes that we can find a space that better suits the needs of the ever-progressing GMHC and its client services than where we’re currently housed.” DNAinfo reported that GMHC was working with real estate firm Studley to identify a cheaper space.

Hill did not survive the real estate misstep. In September 2013 she stepped down from her nearly $250,000 annual post as GMHC leader, while on a paid three-month sabbatical that angered many because other staffers were taking salary cuts amid budget constraints. (Meanwhile, demoralized by the fiscal squeeze and leader- ship void, longtime staffers were leaving in droves.) GMHC insists that Hill’s exit was a mutual decision, although insiders told local press it was an ouster; Hill did not return requests for comment.

Sources have mixed feelings about her departure. Many say that, with her coiffed hair and long, manicured nails, she was a stylish ambassador for GMHC with public and private funders. “The room always gravitated toward her,” says Janet Weinberg, GMHC’s interim CEO, who was number 2 under Hill. (Many say that Weinberg “walked in lockstep” with her boss.) “She was a very calm presence, unable to be rattled.” But many others say that Hill’s queenly poise made her a chilly leader for an agency whose history was rooted in the intimate stuff of direct caregiving.

“People would always say she had a regal bearing,” says a former staffer. “I don’t know if I’d want people describing me that way if I were the CEO of a service agency.” Says Marcelo Maia, a longtime GMHC client who chaired the organization’s Consumer Advisory Board under Hill, “She was very condescending to us, the clients, talking to us like we were kids, playing with her nails and looking at us as if we didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Then again, GMHC has long had a reputation for keeping its clients as clients—a stark difference from the city’s other major AIDS agency, Housing Works, which runs a large job training program that places clients in its various revenue-generating operations, such as its popular thrift stores, covers part of the cost of night school so staff can attain advanced degrees, and has clients on its board. Whereas Housing Works’ cofounder and longtime leader, Charles King, is HIV-positive, GMHC has not had an openly HIV-positive CEO since the 1980s.

Image credit: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Image credit: Massimo Consoli, 1989