SUPPORTING U: Brotherhood Inc.
Community building is part of Mark Johnson’s DNA. In the 1980s, when he owned the popular queer bar Butsy’s, he came face to face with the HIV epidemic as it began ravaging the Black community in New Orleans.
Johnson witnessed firsthand the effects of the crisis as his customers stopped coming in due to losing their jobs, being kicked out of their homes, or being so sick that they couldn’t leave their home. Eventually, Johnson knew what he had to do. He decided to start a nonprofit to alleviate the struggles people of color living with HIV faced against a system that was not catering to their needs.
Brotherhood, Inc. was established in 1995 and aims to develop and implement programs and services that impact the disparities existing within underserved communities through education, enlightenment, and empowerment. For nearly 25 years, the agency has provided outreach to the LGBTQ+ community, housing services to those living with HIV, and low income housing to those experiencing homelessness.
Community-based organizations like Brotherhood have been critical in addressing specific needs for marginalized communities by offering hands-on approaches, which is something many Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) tend to underestimate.
“Things are changing and I’m trying to equip us to be able to address, adapt, and modify to the change,” Johnson says of the impacts the pandemic has delivered this year. “It’s how the funders perceive what they want to pay for. We’re not an FQHC and that is the trend of where a lot of the funders are going now: the one-stop shops. That’s a good concept, but as I’ve said in several meetings I’ve been in, it’s a good thing to have that one-stop shop but you don’t get rid of your foot soldiers.”
Agencies like Brotherhood have a hard task of doing important groundwork, which can encompass many things whether it’s chaperoning an individual to their first appointment at a FQHC, offering transportation, or going out to the communities in which they serve to provide education and testing. In other words, they’re not leaving it up to chance that folks will seek treatment and education themselves. Agencies like Brotherhood act as a bridge and provide a relatable voice to encourage communities to seek care.
“Our agency would be considered the foot soldiers because everybody who comes to us who don’t feel comfortable going to an FQHC will still manage to get to an FQHC because we in turn have memorandum of understandings (MOUs) with FQHCs, with doctors, pharmacists, and different treatment facilities that we will make sure we refer them to,” Johnson says. “They feel comfortable with our agency and then, in turn, we will ensure that they get treated. They might not feel comfortable going directly to an FQHC. The majority of foot solders, these community-based organizations, are in the community of service need and a lot of the FQHCs are on the fringes of the community of service need. We have to be a conduit to get them to the services that they need, so you need the foot soldiers. You need a Brotherhood. You need a woman with a vision. You need an IOS. You need agencies such as that who go out and bring individuals to the FQHCs to make sure they get the treatment they need.”
He continues, “If an individual is diagnosed with active syphilis, gonorrhea, or HIV, we will sign them up. We will make the appointment and we will go with them to the initial appointment. If need be, we have in our budget to give them bus tokens. We’ve even done Uber for a couple who had no way to get there. We’ve even assisted individuals who needed someone to watch their children. FQHCs are not set up to do it that way, but the foot soldiers, the community-based organizations, are set up to do it that way. But our budgets are dwindling. A lot of the funders don’t see the need for [that kind of assistance].
Managing the agency has been a challenge during the pandemic, Johnson admits. But Brotherhood has come up with innovative approaches, which includes a lot of Zoom calls.
“It’s been a little trying because you gotta get people,” he says. “Normally we would meet people in most social gatherings — bars or social events — but they’re not having them as much. It’s been challenging but we’ve managed to still stay in touch with our communities.”
Another challenge is the allocation of money from funders, which has changed significantly over the last decade and sometimes not for the better.
“The problem here in New Orleans is that we’re suffering from gentrification and we have a heavy rent burden and oftentimes a lot of these programs don’t have a lot of funding,” he says. “Before Katrina, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit was anywhere from $400 to $600. Now, the average rent is anywhere from $700 to $1,000, but they have not increased the funding in a lot of these programs to address that increase. That means more people need to utilize less money, so oftentimes it can be a little challenging but there have been other resources that have come into the city that we’ve been able to tap into to help out.”
He continues, “A lot of the kids that had Burger King, McDonald’s, and waiter jobs or worked in bars, with all of that closing it’s hurt them in a way. With a lot of these programs, they had to come up with a percentage of their rent and utilities [in order to get financial assistance]. It’s getting hard to try and help them offset that cost. Oftentimes we find that individuals were doing couch surfing, so we were trying to get them into programs.”
Recently, Brotherhood received funds through ViiV Healthcare and Gilead’s COMPASS initiative to help people during the pandemic, which made a big impact.
“We were able to give people $200 if they needed help with rent, buying gas, buying food,” he explains. “We put it on social media and within seven days we were out of funds. We were able to attract and distribute the funds to much-needed communities that we service.”
The truth is we need agencies like Brotherhood. As we move into 2021 with a bit of uncertainty, it’s important to know that leaders like Johnson are continuing the fight.
“I want to applaud individuals, even though they’re in survival mode, who still take the time to try to care for other people in need,” he says. “This is some very difficult times for everybody. We get up every morning and we don’t know if we’re going to be defunded. I’ve been blessed. I’ve only had two staff to come down with COVID, of 19 of my staff. I know some agencies who’ve had one-third of their staff diagnosed. I know some agencies who’ve had to close their doors because it was everyone but one or two.”
Learn more about Brotherhood Inc.’s programs and how you can volunteer or donate at BrotherhoodInc.org.
Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Advocate.com Editors