The Ventura County Rainbow Alliance (VCRA) announced Sunday that it would shut down its client-related services and programs on June 30, and shutter the organization completely on July 29. Established in 1993, the nonprofit has served Ventura County as a supportive center for the adult and youth LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) community and those affected with HIV/AIDS, providing thousands of clients in the county with mental health and social services over the years.

“The biggest effect of closing is losing the skilled and degreed individuals living as gay individuals that bring life experience as being leaders,” said Jay Smith, executive director of the alliance, who has been out for nearly 30 years.

“In the words of Deborah Sutherland, we have to hand it back it to the community.”

(Sutherland serves as the VCRA board treasurer.)

At its best in 2007 and 2008 with around $750,000 in funding yearly, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dealt a major blow to such agencies by cutting funding for HIV/AIDS related services during the budget crisis in 2009, resulting in a loss to VCRA of $500,000 annually. Shortly thereafter, the alliance downsized and moved to a smaller office, eliminated various services and discharged personnel.

Over the next couple of years, as money trickled out of Ventura County to other major LGBTQ causes (such as the fight to overturn Prop. 8, the controversial initiative that banned gay marriage) the alliance had struggled for survival to allocate enough funding, many of the top management volunteering their time to keep the organization running.

Despite their best efforts, however, the organization experienced a funding drought and decided in a number of closed meetings over the last several months that their only option was to shut down the alliance, permanently. Smith said VCRA would need a minimum operation budget of $150,000 for the next 12 months to keep standard services and programs going.

Smith did say, however, that he was trying to trying to relocate the VCRA counselors to another agency in the county that is willing to take on the work.

Cal Lutheran University sociology professor Adina Nack said she is devastated by the news. As her university has embraced LGBTQ issues over the years, and with her recent promotion to become the new director for Center for Equality and Justice on campus, plus her work with VCRA as well as HIV/AIDS-related services and programs, what the alliance represented in the community simply cannot be replaced, she said.

“I think it is a huge loss, especially for our young people who are still struggling to be comfortable and be accepted in a society that remains fairly homophobic,” Nack said. “I knew about [the Rainbow Alliance] as an organization because I teach  sexuality courses, present films and events, bring in speakers from organization like VCRA because they bring more attention and awareness to healthy sexuality, not just AIDS, but also to the social well-being of individuals and to having true respect for the diversity of sexualities in our county."

Without the alliance, the services once provided all in one central location will be offered only piecemeal at other agencies, organizations and universities, Nack said. “We don’t have a central place — LGBT doesn’t have a place, no place to organize. HIV/AIDS services have been drastically cut. We are down to a bare minimum.” Many affected with HIV/AIDS can get medical services locally, but for mental health services, they have to travel to Los Angeles or other counties.

While county public health still offers free HIV testing and other related medical services, as of June 30, essential mental health and social services will no longer be available in the county, at least not in a central location. Nack said that the repercussions associated with the loss of the Rainbow Alliance, a haven for youth struggling with their sexuality, many of them dealing with rejection from their parents, can be disturbing. She said that teens who can’t find support in their communities may become depressed, filled with anxiety, even attempt suicide. Others may run away and find themselves open and vulnerable to all sorts of nasty elements on the streets.

One of the most discouraging, even frustrating, issues with closing down the Rainbow Alliance for Smith is, knowing that those who have money to donate did so to superfluous activities, such as festivals and parties. The money that could have saved the alliance was redirected toward less meaningful activities, when the money could have gone to the LGBTQ community’s local support system. The Rainbow Alliance served as a backbone for the LGBTQ community, providing counseling and a variety of supportive services that helped to keep troubled youth, adults and HIV/AIDS patients in a good healthy position with their lives.

“If we aren’t helping the disenfranchised and the less-thans, then none of the other stuff matters,” Smith said.

There are a couple of LGBTQ support groups left in the county, but they work on a much smaller scale and simply do not offer all the programs and services that the Rainbow Alliance did. For those who relied on the alliance for support, Smith said he hopes our community will embrace and help them.   

Free anonymous HIV testing will continue through June 29. For more information, go to lgbtventura.org or call 653-5711.

michael@vcreporter.com