LONGWOOD — The Bronx’s only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center will close by the end of the month, less than two weeks after the agency’s former chief was arrested and charged with swiping $338,000 from the nonprofit, officials announced Wednesday.
Lisa Winters, who served as the executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center from 2004 until she was fired in 2010, is suspected of spending thousands of the center’s dollars on vacations, a dog walker, clothing and other personal expenses, according to a criminal complaint cited by the Post.
After more than two years of scrambling to fill the budget gap caused by the missing funds, the center’s board of directors decided last week to shut down the 16-year-old agency, which serves up to 1,000 clients a month, said Antonio Centeno Jr., the board chairman who joined the group months after Winters left.
"I’ve been trying to find money to keep salaries paid, to pay for the programs," Centeno, 35, said Wednesday. "So even though I never met [Winters], I do feel betrayed."
The board said in a statement that it would work to arrange for other organizations to provide its clients with the services it had offered from its Longwood center, such as HIV testing and counseling, sexuality support groups and case management.
In January 2010 the board asked Winters to leave after whistleblowers said she had acted inappropriately, which in turn sparked an inquiry by the city’s Department of Investigation, Centeno said.
After she left, the board reduced its staff and tried other measures to slash costs and lower the agency’s debt, Centeno said.
It also pressed donors for money, but found that under Winters' leadership the center had developed scant name recognition, according to Centeno.
"When you approach potential donors and they say, 'What is Bronx Pride?' that’s not a good thing," Centeno said.
Centeno noted that the board had been weighing its options, which included filing for bankruptcy or merging with another group, for some time.
Members were aware of the city's ongoing investigation into Winters' alleged fraud, but they decided last week to close the agency without any knowledge of her arrest, which they learned of Tuesday through press reports, Centeno said.
"It’s totally coincidental," he said.
The agency began in Mott Haven in 1996 as a coalition of activists and medical workers focused on health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS, within the lesbian and gay community.
By the mid-2000s, the group’s mission had expanded to include social and educational services for both adults and young people, which was reflected by a new name, the Bronx Community Pride Center.
Last December, the center moved into a larger space inside a building named for state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. on Kelly Street in Longwood.
While other groups provide health care and services to Bronx gays and lesbians, the Pride Center offered a blend of cultural activities, such as African dance and yoga, job-readiness training, support groups and case management, along with health care, that was unprecedented in the borough.
Late Wednesday evening, several teenagers were still visible inside an illuminated upstairs room in the center, laughing and rehearsing a dance routine.
"This is a community that is totally underserved in The Bronx," Centeno said. "And our center was trying to fix that."