How COVID affected LGBTQ services in NYC | Pride and Pandemic

In the past year, jobs were lost, stores were shuttered, and the little things — like visiting someone in person — were deemed "unsafe."

"It's hard," said a man in an emerald green overcoat, collecting his things at a building where he used to gather with his community. "We're social beings. We interact with people."

He was standing in the building in New York City that houses what's now referred to as GHMC, the group formerly known as the Gay Men's Health Crisis. The building, though, has been shuttered — aside from one day a week when clients like the man in the green overcoat can come pick up shelf-stable food and produce-to-go.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, he would be in the now-empty dining room, taking advantage of the meals prepared in the now-desolate kitchen, or gathering with members of his community on couches that, these days, haven't been touched in months.

"We want to be around people," he added. "So losing that aspect of humanity was very hard."

Founded in 1981, GHMC is the world's first organization centered around the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Forty years later, a new virus has forced them to close their doors. And the parallels can't be ignored.

"What the COVID pandemic is highlighting is something that the HIV community learned 30 to 40 years ago," GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie said. "And the idea that people of color, poor, and marginalized are disproportionately impacted."

While data is limited, surveys have indicated that marginalized individuals in the LGBTQ community are faring worse than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in March found that LGBTQ households have suffered job loss at higher rates — 56% compared to 44% — and nearly three out of four, 74%, LGBTQ individuals say Pandemic-related stress has had a negative impact on their mental health. Compare that to 49% of non-LGBTQ respondents.

"LGBTQ people are almost twice as likely to work frontline jobs," said Anthony Fortenberry, the chief nursing officer at Callen-Lorde, a community health center that focuses on members of the LGBTQ community.

"So it's been really important we provide adequate testing, that we are doing check-ins for patients that maybe aren't able to come in because they are immune-compromised," he said.

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You could argue that not since the 1980s have the support services these organizations provide been as needed as they are today.

And yet, those services now are harder to fund than ever.

In 2020, GHMC brought in less than $2 million from its annual AIDS Walk, less than half what they'd normally raise. Callen-Lorde representatives told FOX 5 NY the center suffered between $6 million and $7 million in lost revenue. And another non-profit, the LGBT Center, reports almost a $5 million loss. The heads of all three organizations say restrictions on face-to-face gatherings have had the biggest impact.

"A lot of our fundraising is based on getting the community together, in a room, in some way, and celebrating and raising money," said Glennda Testone, the executive director of the LGBT Center. "And we have not been able to do that for a year."

Callen-Lorde CEO Wendy Stark told FOX 5 NY that the center's financial situation showed signs of distress just days into the pandemic because a drop in patients meant a drop in billing for the visits.

"We don't have the capacity," Stark added. "We don't have adequate capacity to both provide care for everyone seeking it from us and to provide vaccinations to everyone seeking those from us."

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But while financial support may be severely lagging, the human support — like the sheer number of hours put in by staff and volunteers — has skyrocketed.

For instance, Callen-Lorde, despite the challenges, still opened its Brooklyn location, its largest facility yet, all in the midst of the pandemic.

"Now we are open five days a week, and we are going to keep growing because the need is there," Stark said.

This is especially important for mental healthcare, according to Testone.

"Because we serve LGBT people who typically face some kind of isolation to begin with, whether its home or job or neighborhood, not being able to be fully themselves," Testone said. "We just knew that this was going to hit our community hard."

Apparently, they were right.

Like everyone else over the past year, she and the rest of those at the LGBT Center have pivoted to all-virtual assistance. But Testone said, to their surprise, they've been able to connect with even more people than they typically would be when working out of their physical building pre-pandemic.

"Some of the services we provide, like individual counseling, support groups, the demand for those things has gone up anywhere from 20% to 45%," Testone said.

GMHC has also found a pivot, as well. Thanks to a grant, the group was able to buy surplus produce directly from farmers upstate and distribute it every Wednesday through a grab-and-go program in their lobby, to maintain social distancing.

It's not quite the same as gathering around a table, as the man in the green overcoat would tell you. But it's something.

Durrell Knights, a group-level intervention coordinator at GMHC, said the weekly service "shows our clients that we're still here."

"We were born out of an epidemic," said the group's nutrition and meals director Josie Thiele, drawing the comparison to the early days of HIV/AIDS. 

"I think because we had that history because we've had that mission all along, we had the motivation and the effort you need and organization you need to do that," Thiele said.

"Regardless of what's going on around them, the doors of GMHC will continue to be open for them," Knights added.

For now, unfortunately, he's speaking figuratively. And of course, for the once-a-week food distribution. 

But someday soon, the doors will literally swing open again, wider than they ever have before, and they'll continue to provide services for a marginalized community.

"That'll be a dream come true," said the man in the green overcoat.  "That'll be awesome if that — when that comes about."