Former director charged with embezzling funds from LGBT center
The Bronx Community Pride Center, the borough’s largest LGBTQ service organization, has announced it will shut its doors Friday due to financial problems, according to a press release the group sent out on June 27.
The organization, which serves over 1,000 clients annually, relocated from its Mott Haven office, where it had been since 1997, to Kelly St. in Longwood last year.
The chairman of the Pride Center’s board of directors, Antonio Centeno, explained at a Community Board 2 meeting Wednesday, that the organization has struggled with money trouble for the last two years. Centeno, who is also a Community Board 2 member, said fundraising efforts aimed at keeping the Center open have fallen short.
“It was the sort of thing where the more we did, the more expenses we had,” said Centeno. “We really tried.”
In a complaint filed with the Bronx DA’s office on June 15, the organization’s former executive director, Lisa Winters, was arrested on charges of grand larceny and falsifying business records, for allegedly swindling the Center out of $338,000 to buy clothes, trips and meals. According to the complaint, Winters spent $25,000 on a personal trip to Africa, over $18,000 on pet care and veterinary services, and $10,000 on clothing, among other unauthorized expenditures.
Winters directed the Center from 2004 until she was fired in January 2010. Former staff members recall the organization was already in steep decline by that time.
“The place was in shambles and I’m still amazed it lasted this long,” said Manny Mendoza, 28, who worked as office manager at the center from 2010 until April of this year. Mendoza walked out when the Center could no longer afford to pay him.
Officials and board members at the Community Board 2 meeting were stunned and saddened at news of the closing.
“The concern the community board has is, how are residents going to be able to make up [for] these services,” said District Manager Rafael Salamanca. “We have to work closely to ensure that people are not left out there with nothing.”
Karystal Neal, 25, has been trekking to the center from her home in Harlem since she was a teen. Even after a recent move to Far Rockaway, Neal still made time to cross the city to come to the Center, rather than going to an LGBTQ center a few blocks away from her new home, because of the high quality of services the Pride Center offered.
“They helped me with my sexuality and to come out when I was younger, then they helped me come out as a transgender,” said Neal. “They even arranged sit-downs with my mother, so I can tell her.”
Now as the center closes Neal worries about her spot on a waiting list for housing for transgender tenants, who are often discriminated against when trying to rent.
As recently as mid-June, the group applied to the city for funding they were confident they would receive, but the city turned them down, Centeno said.
Gay and lesbian Bronxites have been victims in several high-profile cases in recent years. Most recently, a 30-year-old gay man was kidnapped, sodomized and tortured by several gang members in University Heights in 2010, an incident that made national news.
“It’s sad to see them close when they are doing important work for a segment of the population that feels segregated,” said Assemblyman Marcus Crespo at the community board meeting, after learning of the closure.
Robert Lassegue, who served on the group’s board of directors, noted that the Pride Center was crucial for LGBTQ Bronxites worried to be themselves at home and in public. The non-profit center opened in 1997 as the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium, before evolving into a community center geared to help and advise LGBTQ Bronxites.
“There is no other place like this in the Bronx. You might have a piece here or a piece there but we are the only ones who have everything here,” he said, pointing out that the center offered HIV testing, GED classes, youth programs and counseling under one roof.
Centeno stressed that he and others at the Center will continue to seek services for community members impacted by the closure.
This story was updated on June 30.