In 1982, a group of San Franciscans came together to pay bills for their friends who were too ill to work because of their battle with a mysterious disease. As more of their friends grew sick, many faced job loss, eviction and staggering medical bills.
That small team of volunteers formed the AIDS Emergency Fund and dedicated it to the task of compassionately providing emergency financial assistance to those impoverished by the new disease. During the early years of AIDS hysteria and paranoia, AIDS Emergency Fund became the major agency in the Bay Area that helped people pay their bills or keep their homes after being fired from their jobs at the merest suspicion of HIV or AIDS. Thanks to medical break-throughs in the mid-1990s, many people live much longer with HIV and AIDS. However, they often face years of poverty and disability. AEF is one of their few sources of financial assistance during times of crisis.
For over 30 years of service, AEF has distributed over $30,000,000 to landlords, utility companies and medical service providers on behalf of more than 55,000 clients, helping people living with HIV and AIDS avoid homelessness and maintain medical treatment.
Payments are made quickly and anonymously, with a minimum of bureaucracy. AEF’s clients come from all neighborhoods in San Francisco and reflect the demographics and diversity of the AIDS pandemic. Although roughly half are referred by SF General Hospital, AEF maintains collaborating agreements with over 40 AIDS service providers across the City, including Positive Resource Center, Continuum, TARC, API Wellness Center, Mission Neighborhood Health Center and others. AEF serves about 2,500 clients and provides about $1,200,000 in emergency assistance per year.
AEF has maintained its original grassroots nature and volunteer enthusiasm. Today it is still staffed predominantly by volunteers, who provide all the face-to-face assistance for clients. Operating with a paid staff of just five people, AEF has a long history of low overhead and frugality. The agency currently receives about 35% of its funding ($600,000) from the SF Department of Public Health, using funds from the federal Ryan White Care Act. This figure has fallen by half since the late 1990s. In order to provide services to San Francisco’s population of low-income people with HIV and AIDS, AIDS Emergency Fund raises nearly $1,000,000 in additional funding each year from community events, businesses, foundations and individuals.
Many of AEF’s founders were proud members of San Francisco’s South of Market leather community. Today, leather community volunteers and activists continue to raise a large share of AEF’s revenue. Since 1987, AEF’s signature fundraising effort has been its Pennies Program: hundreds of coin jars in bars, restaurants and retail establishments that are emptied regularly by volunteers. In the mid 1990s the program expanded to include annual coin collection programs in schools and colleges throughout the Bay Area. The Pennies Program has generated over $2,000,000 for our clients and continues to raise more than $100,000 per year.
In 1988, a group of AEF volunteers organized the first Holiday Dinner for People the HIV/AIDS on Christmas Eve in the Green Room of the War Memorial Building. The program has continued as an annual event for 1,100 people with HIV/AIDS, their families and friends.
In April 2001, after several years of research and input from the community, AIDS Emergency Fund launched a new initiative: The Breast Cancer Emergency Fund (BCEF). Modeled on AEF’s success in providing direct financial assistance to low-income San Franciscans fighting HIV and AIDS, the new breast cancer initiative honors the compassionate commitment of the caregivers in the women’s community who came to the aid of gay men in the early years of the AIDS pandemic. AEF nurtured and grew BCEF as a program of AEF until early 2005, when BCEF established its own tax status. The two agencies continue to share operations and staff to keep overhead low for both causes.