New Leaf closing its doors
by Heather Cassell
An LGBT nonprofit that provides mental health, substance abuse, and senior services announced this week that it has run out of money and will close its doors by the middle of October.
The board of directors of New Leaf: Services for Our Community voted unanimously August 15 at an emergency meeting to begin the process to dissolve the agency, which turned 35 this year. The closure is due to the fact that the agency is no longer fiscally sustainable, Thom Lynch, interim executive director of New Leaf, and Barbara Garcia, deputy director of health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, told the Bay Area Reporter Monday.
"There were a lot of tears around the table. Some of the board members were former clients at New Leaf; one was a long-term client. This hits people personally," said Lynch, who stepped into the troubled organization 10 months ago in an attempt to fix it. "It's very, very sad, but I'm also really proud of the organization for taking a really hard look at itself and making a tough decision."
The deadly mix: a dearth of necessary financial resources combined with rising operational costs on top of high operational expenses. Some former employees also pointed to poor management. All of that was compounded by the economic crisis.
One of the contributors was the agency's lease, which Lynch said was "expensive" at nearly $33,000 per month, and has three and a half years left. City budget cuts were also a factor, he said.
"We've explored every possible way that we could to have the organization continue," said Lynch, no longer hopeful that an "angel" philanthropist who could afford $300,000 or more a year to support the agency will appear. "But it's not only about the organization continuing. It's about providing good services. There comes a point where the quality of the services is so damaged that we just can't continue to do that fairly to the clients or the community."
New Leaf wasn't at that point yet, but was rapidly heading toward it, Lynch said. At the beginning of August he informed Garcia, who worked with New Leaf's management on a 60-day plan to dissolve the organization and vacate the Fox Plaza administrative offices at 1390 Market Street and the clinical offices around the corner at 103 Hayes Street.
Garcia wanted to ensure a rapid, but smooth, transition of services to other agencies and to make the change as seamless as possible. It also provided time for the agency's management to properly execute the dissolution plan. The city will acquire the agency's assets once state Attorney General Jerry Brown approves the plan. But the truth is, in the end, one of the city's pillar queer organizations is a pauper in need of $50,000 to close its doors, Lynch estimated.
Garcia praised New Leaf's leadership for the agency's handling of the difficult situation.
"They've been very cooperative and professional," she said.
Anne Hinton, director of the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, agreed, adding that the New Leaf executive team's approach to closing the agency was "very thoughtful" and "very dedicated" and "really focused on the people they serve."
Current employees contacted for this story did not respond to requests for comment. Officials with SEIU Local 1021, the union representing some of New Leaf's employees, and with which the agency has had a contentious relationship at times, referred questions to Lynch.
Meeting clients' needs
City officials are already working with New Leaf to swiftly manage the situation to maintain quality LGBT-specific mental health and social services. The city and other LGBT nonprofits are quickly offering their assistance.
Openly gay Supervisors Bevan Dufty and David Campos will meet with Garcia, Hinton, and Lynch next week. The Board of Supervisors is in summer recess and both men were away this week.
"These issues are fundamental issues for the health of our community," said Dufty in a phone interview from Provincetown, Massachusetts. Dufty said he wants to ensure the "high caliber" of services New Leaf provided isn't lost.
"There is a sense of disappointment and concern," added Campos in a phone interview from Los Angeles. But he said the closure of New Leaf is a "new chapter" and that moving forward he stressed clients won't be abandoned and that city officials are "on top" of the situation.
A DPH transition team will be on site at New Leaf throughout September. The department's staff will be working with the agency's counselors and clients to assess individuals' mental health and substance abuse needs in order to redirect them or make referrals to one of the agencies currently identified by DPH, "to help the clients have choices," said Garcia.
"You can't say it's not a loss in the community. It is a loss in the community," said Garcia. "We are really going to have to work hard to continue to respond to the needs of this community."
"We will be working with clients over the next month," added Lynch. "We will be reaching out to our clients in as many ways possible and working with them directly to find continuum care for them."
New Leaf's HIV mental health program and a portion of other mental health services is scheduled to move to UCSF's AIDS Health Project; women's and transgender behavioral and mental health will move to Lyon-Martin Health Services. Garcia said she also hoped Lyon-Martin would offer medical homes to LBT women.
The substance abuse programs and services will move to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Speed Project; and the youth programs will move to DPH's Children's Health and Youth Programming, said Garcia. Individuals in an emergency situation should contact the city's access program. (See resource list.)
The GLBT Psychotherapist Association of the San Francisco Bay Area's board is considering ways to help some of New Leaf's soon-to-be former clients, said Matt Porter, MFT, Gaylesta co-president. The therapist organization has 250 members that clients can access online through its referral program.
The fate of New Leaf's Outreach to Elders program is yet to be determined, said Dufty and Hinton.
"I've been very concerned, because so many of the seniors will literally fall through the cracks," said Jan S. Couvillon, former outreach to elder activities manager at New Leaf. Couvillon started her new position as a peer advocate for seniors at Central City Hospitality House on Monday.
She pointed out that many of the LGBT seniors don't trust mainstream institutions after "spending a lifetime being beaten down by society." It's going to be very difficult for those who left isolation to join a social community, she said.
Polly Taylor, 81, a disabled senior lesbian who was a New Leaf client, said she wasn't surprised by the closure.
"My impression has been the place was being very badly run and they weren't keeping up with services and so forth," said Taylor. "I think it's a shame that it takes away about our only support for seniors."
Officials at Openhouse, which provides some senior services, said they were ready to discuss the situation.
"LGBT seniors need to have the services maintained. We are ready to sit down and talk with New Leaf and allies to ensure the programs continue," said Seth Kilbourn, executive director of Openhouse, in a phone interview from Rhode Island visiting his family.
Many community members, elected officials, and mental health professionals expressed profound sadness at the loss of New Leaf.
"It's a huge loss because of ... the breadth of services that they were able to provide with such great cultural capacity. It is a huge loss to this city," said Teri McGinnis, executive director at Lyon-Martin.
"Our community needs to have agencies that are there for us, made up for us, and by us, especially with the long history dealing with substance abuse issues ... access to mental health services has to be a top priority," added openly gay Health Commissioner Steven Tierney.
New Leaf made LGBT individuals' mental health and substance abuse issues a top priority for 35 years. In the process it changed the landscape of mental health, substance abuse, and senior services.
Founded as Operation Concern in 1974, as a men's mental health services agency, when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, it established precedence for being a cutting edge organization.
In 1976, 18th Street Services was formed to provide substance abuse services. In 1995 the two agencies merged into New Leaf.
Perhaps the agency's most enduring legacy is the clinical intern training program. Thousands of therapists received New Leaf's culturally sensitive training before moving onto other practices of their own.
Garcia and Lynch said they hope that some of New Leaf's employees will be hired by the agencies taking over the organization's landmark programs.
Gaylesta (the GLBT Psychotherapist Association of SF Bay Area)
Therapist Referral Line: (888) 869-4993
Office Phone: (510) 433-9939
Lyon-Martin Health Services
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
Phone: (415) 565-7667
San Francisco AIDS Foundation
Phone: (415) 788-5433
San Francisco Department of Public Health
Children's Health and Youth Programming
UCSF AIDS Health Project
Phone: (415) 476-3902