By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
DETROIT – Approximately one thousand people living with HIV/AIDS will lose food delivery services on Dec. 1, the day that Wellness House will close after twenty years.
While the organization’s twelve residents have all been placed in independent living situations, it is unclear how many of the remaining people who have depended on Wellness House for food will be going hungry after the agency closes.
“There is no place to refer food clients to, so we’re telling them ‘good luck,'” said Wellness House Executive Director Rob Fetzer. According to Fetzer, his organization had been delivering food to approximately 3,000 clients in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Saint Clair counties before funding cuts forced them to cut back to the current 1,000 clients last year.
Health Emergency Lifeline Program, which in 2004 received the Title II food funding that had originally been slated for Wellness House during a dispute between Wellness House and the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, does not provide food delivery. HELP does provide vouchers; however, clients must either be able to travel to the agency, and then to the one local grocery store where the vouchers can be redeemed, or must have someone who can do so for them.
“We really try to work with people as best we can, but it is a challenge,” said HELP Executive Director Teresa Roscoe.
In addition to delivering food boxes, Wellness House had mailed the vouchers to clients for use at stores closer to the clients’ homes. Wellness House required receipts for the food to be mailed back to their office.
“You’ve got to be flexible to get stuff to [clients],” Fetzer said.
Asked about Fetzer’s allegation that there are no other agencies delivering food to HIV/AIDS patients in need, Dr. Vincent Nathan, deputy director of Detroit’s Department of Health and Wellness, said, “I don’t think that’s correct,” and referred the question to Jewel Martin, HIV/AIDS programs administrator. Repeated calls by BTL to Martin’s office resulted in a request that the question be submitted by email. The email was not answered as of press time.
As reported by BTL on Nov. 2, Fetzer and the board of Wellness House cited the dispute with the Detroit health department and an eviction notice from their landlord, the Archdiocese of Detroit, as the forces behind the community organization’s demise.
Both Nathan and Martin disputed Fetzer’s contention that their department is partially at fault for the closing.
“They rejected the funding that we offered them for other services,” Martin said. “That was his [Fetzer’s] decision. Their failure to comply with the grantee’s requirements and their rejection of our offer – those were decisions that that organization made.” As reported by BTL in August of 2004, Wellness House refused a probationary contract from the department, saying that to do so would be to admit to false allegations by the Detroit health department that the organization had acted incorrectly.
“I don’t think we were solely responsible for their demise,” said Nathan. “I would hate that they were so dependant on [us for] their funding – we did not take all of their funding away, nor did they apply for funding this year. We have no animosity – our program is so transparent and so regulated that we couldn’t do some of the things they’re alleging if we tried.”
As for the dispute between her department and Wellness House, Martin said, “The City Council and the auditors have issued their statement on issues that are now over a year old, and that was a fair review.”
As reported by BTL in July 2004, the Detroit City Council referred the matter to Detroit Auditor General Joseph L. Harris. Harris’ report, issued on Feb. 25, 2005, said, “We concluded that although DHWP could support its decision to not fund the Wellness House (WHOM) for the Ryan White Title I/Title II funds for the Food Bank Program, the DHWP’s evaluation and award process for Food Bank-food voucher funding was inconsistent in FY 2004….The DHWP’s evaluation and award process in FY 2004 for the Ryan White Title I/Title II Food Bank – food vouchers funding had inconsistencies that caused the award process to be questionable.”
In addition, health department Director Dr. Noble Maseru told the Detroit Free Press in an article on Nov. 14 that his agency was not at fault in the dispute. According to the Free Press report, Maseru claimed that “the City Council and the federal Department of Health and Human Services ultimately rejected Fetzer’s complaints.”
“What the department did was correct,” Maseru was quoted as saying. “Regrettably, Wellness House has elected not to continue a dialogue with us.”
Fetzer disputed Maseru in a Nov. 17, unpublished letter to the Free Press that was supplied to BTL.
“I write to express shock that the story included misinformation from [Maseru],” Fetzer wrote. “It cannot be considered a rejection when the City Council was concerned enough to refer the matter to Detroit Auditor General Joseph Harris, who found … that the health department’s ‘evaluation and award process…had inconsistencies that caused the award process to be questionable.’ No one who reads the Auditor General’s report could conclude – as Dr. Maseru is quoted as saying – that ‘what the department did was correct.'”
Fetzer said that he is trying to make arrangements with the Ruth Ellis Center, an LGBT youth shelter in Detroit, to donate items no longer needed, ranging from office equipment to beds.
According to a release about the closing issued by Wellness House, “The irony of Wellness House ending services on World AIDS Day – Dec. 1 – is not lost on Fetzer. ‘It’s a bitter pill, and our clients have already had to swallow a million of those.'”