Project Inform has closed, sources say

  • by Liz Highleyman, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday March 20, 2019
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Project Inform's last known address was in a WeWork building at 25 Taylor Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Project Inform's last known address was in a WeWork building at 25 Taylor Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Project Inform, one of the nation's longest-running HIV education and advocacy organizations, has terminated its staff and dissolved, according to former staff members and others.

Last Friday, the Bay Area Reporter reported online that the agency was likely to cease operations, as former staff members issued a statement saying Project Inform could not "successfully navigate the current funding environment."

This week, the paper learned from sources close to the organization, who asked to remain anonymous due to ongoing legal issues, that the board voted to dissolve the organization and then resigned. The former staff are said to be seeking a determination from the state attorney general's office about who is responsible for filing final paperwork and dealing with creditors.

The attorney general's press office told the B.A.R. Tuesday, March 19, that it had not yet received a dissolution request.

Although ex-staffers were reluctant to discuss details, the change appears to have come about abruptly, with little advance notice to employees. The staff announcement was not distributed through official organization channels and the Project Inform website makes no mention of it. (The site was last updated in January.) The group's renowned HIV hotline gives a message saying the number is not set up to receive calls. The Hepatitis C Helpline, however, is run by a collaboration of several organizations and will continue.

"Despite the continued success and evolution of our work in HIV and hepatitis C virus — two of the most stigmatizing diseases in the United States — we have not been able to successfully navigate the current funding environment," read the announcement the B.A.R. saw last week.

The B.A.R. was unable to reach Project Inform board president Glen Lubbert or vice president Courtney Landis by phone, email, or social media channels.

According to the agency's website, its last office was located at 25 Taylor Street, which is a WeWork building. Its Facebook page posted about the new address last month.

Despite the suddenness of the developments, recently dismissed staff members have largely taken a positive tone in their comments.

"We are so pleased to have had the chance to work together to contribute to Project Inform's legacy of achievements over the last three decades," said David Evans, an HIV educator and advocate with the organization since 1991 who took on the position of interim director after the departure of Dana Van Gorder last June.

"While we all recognize there is much more to be done to end the HIV and hepatitis C epidemics, we remain steadfastly committed to see that work completed," he told the B.A.R.

According to its website, Glen Lubbert was the president of Project Inform's board of directors.  

A legacy of advocacy
Martin Delaney and Joe Brewer started project Inform in 1984, a time when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the San Francisco gay community. There was only a rudimentary understanding of how the disease spread, a test for the newly identified virus had not yet been developed, and there were no effective treatments. The antiretroviral cocktails that would turn the epidemic around in the mid-1990s were still a decade away.

Delaney died in January 2009.

Through its hotline, educational materials, and public forums, Project Inform provided information for people living with HIV/AIDS — and later hepatitis C virus (HCV) — before the internet transformed how news is disseminated. The organization brought HIV- and HCV-related issues to the attention of policy makers and the public, encouraged regulatory agencies to speed the approval of new medications, lobbied for increased funding for medical research and care and support services, and worked to end stigma and discrimination against people living with or at risk for HIV and HCV.

Project Inform was a partner in San Francisco's Getting to Zero initiative and recently worked to support supervised injection facilities for people who use drugs.

The staff announcement acknowledged the tremendous advances over the past three decades — gains that ultimately have contributed to the demise of several HIV and hepatitis C education and advocacy efforts as the sense of urgency has waned and funding sources have dried up.

"Thirty-five years hence, life with HIV is counted in decades rather than weeks or months and HIV can't be transmitted when viral suppression is achieved," the ex-staffers wrote. "As well, people wishing to protect themselves from HIV transmission have an additional powerful tool, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Hepatitis C is curable and people who use drugs may soon have greater access to services that will keep them alive.

"When an organization touches so many lives around the globe for so many years, it is impossible to assess its legacy," the ex-staffers added. "We trust, however, that Project Inform's legacy will resound for years to come and influence our own work and that of countless others who have dedicated so much and continue to do so."

Community members had mixed reactions, with many expressing sadness at the loss of an organization that had played a key role in the response to the epidemic while acknowledging that the reduced need for HIV organizations is a victory.

"I can't say I'm shocked at the closing," said longtime HIV advocate Cal Callahan, who has collaborated with Project Inform over the years. "After all, all of us in this field hope for the day when we've succeeded with at least most of our mission and can put ourselves out of business."

But others emphasize that the work is far from over.

"California still leads the nation in new HIV diagnoses, disproportionately among black and Latino men who have sex with men, young men who have sex with men, trans women of color, and other vulnerable populations," Anne Donnelly, who had long led PI's health care policy advocacy work, told the B.A.R. "We have over 400,000 people living with HCV in California and more than half of them don't even know their status. Sexually transmitted disease rates in California are at a historic high. And, of course, the inequities, stigma, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, and homelessness that exacerbate all of these epidemics still plague so many of the people we serve."

Brenda Lein, a former director of Project Inform's Information and Advocacy Department and a longtime friend of Delaney, criticized the circumstances surrounding the agency's demise.

"This is not how Martin Delaney would want to see Project Inform closing its doors — indeed, he would have been profoundly disappointed," Lein told the B.A.R. "He would have wanted this day to arrive differently, in celebration of everything that has been accomplished and with a plan for the future. Instead we arrive here because of missed opportunities for many years. There is work left to do. AIDS is not over. There is still no cure for HIV. Martin Delaney's memory lives on in the work that remains."