After criticizing the Well of Hope, council members on Tuesday evening failed to pull funding from the troubled needle exchange operator. At question was $93,327 in grant funds the nonprofit receives via the city from the federal Ryan White program.
In a 6-2 vote, the council allowed the organization to keep the grant monies. Council members Michael Jackson and Alex Mendez favored taking away the funds to send a message to the organization.
Jackson said the “irresponsibility” of the way the program is run forced him to act. He cited the two failed inspections and the organization’s lack of willingness to take steps to address concerns raised by community residents.
“This is just not run responsibly,” said Jackson. “There needs to be some type of oversight.” The Well of Hope received a second unsatisfactory from the Paterson Division of Health in August.
Jerome King, head of the Well of Hope, has yet to take steps to address the issues cited in the failed health inspection report as of last week, according to municipal officials. Inspectors discovered extensive mold growth inside the kitchen cabinets, ceiling, and floor. There were also obstructed hand washing facilities, no running hot water, no paper towels, and debris and dust inside the refrigerator. Missing tiles on the floor indicates a possible vermin problem
King was issued 12 summonses for the violations.
“The way they operate here, they will never do that in any other town in Passaic County,” said Mendez. He also complained about the large numbers of dirty needles in public places that is suspected to originate from the Well of Hope.
Those opposed to pulling the funding were council members Ruby Cotton, Andre Sayegh, William McKoy, Maritza Davila, Shahin Khalique, and Luis Velez.
Councilman Kenneth Morris recused himself.
“Ryan White doesn’t fund the needle program,” said council president Ruby Cotton. Indeed, the funds in question pay for HIV/AIDS-related activities like early intervention, substance abuse services, non-medical case management, and outreach.
Davila, who three months ago wanted the Well of Hope to move out of Paterson and relocate to Bergen County, reversed course and became the strongest advocate to keep funding the troubled organization.
“To me, this is not about the Well of Hope,” said Davila. She claimed pulling funding will ostensibly negatively impact blacks and Latinos suffering from HIV/AIDS. Funds pulled from the Well of Hope would have been reallocated to other organizations providing the same services in the city.
McKoy recognized the problems at the organization. “I’ve not heard any dissatisfaction with that program and how it is delivered,” he said referring to the services funded by the Ryan White funds.
McKoy described the Well of Hope as “irresponsible” in the past. However, he voted in favor of allowing the organization to receive funding.
Cotton, McKoy, Sayegh, Velez, Khalique, and Davila voted to allow the Well of Hope to keep the grant funds while Jackson and Mendez voted against.
After the vote, Jackson and Mendez appeared to chastise their colleagues for bungling the sole mechanism the council has to hold an organization accountable.
“Our authority comes about when it comes time to vote for funding. If the administration does not act responsibly, the only way the council holds the card of enforcement, is through the vote of funding — that’s it. Some people don’t understand that,” said Jackson. “This program is a hazard to the community. This is our only way to hold them responsible. We have no other way.”
Jackson also mentioned health and human service director Donna Nelson-Ivy’s role in shielding the organization from inspectors. Nelson-Ivy sent less than professional messages to King as scrutiny of the Well of Hope intensified.
Nelson-Ivy thanked council members after the vote.
Community leaders have repeatedly demonstrated against the Well of Hope for its needle program. One of those leaders is Roger Grier. He was the first to capture the negative impact dirty needles were having on the city.
“My only concern was the needle exchange,” said Grier on Wednesday morning. He said funds that support other programs should not be taken away from the nonprofit. The council still has the option to rescind the measure that granted the needle exchange permission to operate in the city.
It’s not clear whether any council members intend to consider such a measure.
Grier also made a curious observation. “I’m not finding any needles on the ground. That’s scary. Drug users don’t change their habits overnight. Where are these people shooting up now?” he said.
The vote taken on Tuesday night is likely to have political consequences. There continues to be great opposition to the Well of Hope. For example, dozens of voters, in recent campaign kickoff events, expressed their desire to see the the Well of Hope shut down.
Davila, who is running for re-election next year, is at-risk of losing her at-large seat. This vote may further negatively impact her candidacy. Similarly, McKoy and Sayegh, both possible mayoral candidates, may have to explain their vote to voters.
McKoy announced his candidacy; Sayegh has yet to do so.
Mendez and Jackson, both vowed to shut down the Well of Hope, have stuck to their promise to neighborhood residents opposed to the Well of Hope.
“I’d not support his existence in this city. His doors need to be closed. He has no regards or well intentions for the community,” said Jackson of King, who lives in Lodi.
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