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Wednesday, May 27, 2009 03:15 am

Group helps prostitutes recover; struggles for recovery itself

PORA closes residential program and lays off staff members

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Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives provides food, condoms and free HIV testing at several outreach sites around Springfield. The organization recently closed its residential program until more funding sources are identified.

Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives, a Springfield nonprofit that provides housing for survivors of prostitution, as well as food and free HIV testing at several sites around Springfield, has seen its share of financial and personnel struggles over the past six months.

PORA’s board of directors announced two weeks ago that the organization would temporarily close its residential program. At the same time, the board laid off six part-time residential staff members, leaving director of operations Lisa Tomasino, outreach coordinator Erica Johnson, two part-time outreach workers and about 15 volunteers to run the organization.

Dee Nelson, who founded PORA in 1992 and now acts as board president, points to scarce funding as the board’s motive for the changes. It costs too much to staff the building 24 hours a day, she says, especially since the organization’s sole resident recently graduated and left its six-bed unit unoccupied.

“We’re primarily focusing on generating revenue,” Nelson says. “We cut our budget down to see us through.”

PORA received $5,200 from the United Way of Central Illinois in 2008, but was one of four local applicants that didn’t receive any money from this year’s $1.7 million community fund. The organization expects to receive a $30,000 grant from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for emergency shelter services and additional funds from the Illinois Department of Public Health for HIV/STD prevention, but leaders say it isn’t enough.

“We’ve never had that residential program fully funded, probably not even 50 percent funded,” M.T. Vann, a six-year board veteran, says. “When the economy went down, it started grinding us down as well.”

Tomasino signed on as PORA’s full-time director in January and has since worked to write grant proposals and request additional funds from the organization’s supporters. She hopes to garner at least $150,000 for operating costs.

“We don’t have high salaries,” she says. “We don’t have luxurious facilities. We really operate on a shoestring.

“As of right now, we’re not able to operate on a shoestring. We’re challenged every week to pay the bills.”

Four women are waiting for a spot in PORA’s residential program, Tomasino adds; each of them will be ready to transfer from separate treatment programs or the Illinois Department of Corrections in 30 to 45 days. PORA leaders wouldn’t pin down an exact reopening date since it’s contingent upon funding.

The nonprofit’s financial trouble follows the December firing of two key employees and the resulting resignations of one other employee and multiple board members.

Bernie Carver joined PORA’s board in 1999 and became the executive director in 2005. In August he was demoted to outreach coordinator, even though, he says, he tripled revenue, the number of people served and the number of people who attended the annual fundraiser. He submitted the DCEO emergency shelter grant proposal before he was fired on Dec. 9.

Sally Millichamp, the nonprofit’s case manager and Carver’s wife (the couple met while working at PORA), was also fired on Dec. 9. She started at the organization in 2002.

The pair was fired two hours before a board meeting by a personnel committee that included Nelson and Vann. Pamela Lees, a licensed clinical professional counselor who was a new member of the board, confirms that she was first informed of the terminations at the meeting.

Nelson refused to comment on the incident, except to say that PORA “did what we thought was appropriate.” Vann also refused to comment, saying personnel matters should be confidential.

Jan Hamilton, PORA’s second case manager who also started with the organization in 2002, immediately resigned. She told the board that she “no longer trusted them to make good decisions on behalf of the agency and the clients that we served.”

Lees and at least six other board members have resigned in the months since Carver and Millichamp were fired.

“I quit the board in March,” Lees says. “I told them in the letter that for ethical reasons, I didn’t feel that I should be connected to them. As a licensed counselor, I really felt that I had to distance myself from the activities of that group.”

Amanda McDonald moved into PORA in December 2007, but left the organization three weeks after the couple was fired. The 28-year-old was one of three residents at the time. The board didn’t hire a new case manager, but McDonald says she didn’t feel comfortable talking about her life with someone new.

“Sally was my biggest support and she still is,” says McDonald, who now lives in her own apartment and works at The Pizzeria.

In January when Tomasino was hired as director, Johnson was promoted from the full-time residential manager position that she’d held since March 2008 to outreach coordinator. In February she returned to many of the same outreach sites that Carver and Millichamp frequented with food, HIV/STD prevention pamphlets and condoms [see “Mean Streets of Springfield,” Oct. 23, 2008].

Tomasino has limited knowledge of what occurred at PORA before she started, she says, but assumes the board’s goal was to change direction and expand services. She’s seen an increased need, especially for groceries and supplies from the Monday food pantry. The organization used to serve about 40 families each week; now it serves up to 70.

Some changes in the works at PORA include expanded group and case management activities for people not involved in the residential program. The organization hopes to offer daily recovery meetings, as well as regular evening hours that provide services and resources.

“The board had to make some difficult decisions and in the interest of PORA’s longevity, we felt we had to make these decisions right now,” Tomasino says. “We’re sure in the next few months we’ll be able to put everything back in place.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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