Two major players serving Houston’s LGBT clients merge.
By Rich Arenschieldt
Two longstanding HIV service providers, Houston Area Community Services (HACS) and Bering Omega Community Services, have merged, creating one of the city’s largest providers of LGBT healthcare, housing, hospice, adult daycare, and numerous other services.
According to Troy Brooks, chairman of Bering Omega’s board of directors, this decision resulted from years of intensive discussion. In his professional life, Brooks serves as a healthcare attorney addressing regulatory issues—a talent that he utilized well during the past year. “I’ve been on the Bering board for five years, and during that time we’ve had numerous strategic planning meetings about our future—how we will look and, more importantly, how we will serve,” he says.
Bering Omega is one of the most venerable service providers in the city, established in 1986. A trailblazer during the AIDS epidemic, it was funded and staffed by volunteers from Bering United Methodist Church and Houston’s Christ Church Cathedral. Initially, the endeavor relied entirely on private donations (government funding would not become available until 1991), most of which came from the LGBT community.
“When you have such a storied history as we do, sometimes it’s difficult to contemplate change,” Brooks says. “Our board is comprised of intelligent, deliberative individuals. They approached this task with an abundance of caution, knowing that they were not just facilitating a merger, but ensuring that our organization successfully evolved. Our employees, volunteers, and funders have a long history of care and concern for our mission and our clients.”
Since its inception, Bering Omega has pioneered services in three areas: HIV/AIDS inpatient hospice care, dental care (through its internationally recognized dental clinic), and adult day care.
“Omega House Hospice was the first of its kind in Texas—but even there, the needs of the community are changing,” Brooks says. “People now receive hospice care from numerous providers; some patients enter inpatient hospice, recover, and leave. We used to have a waiting list—now we have unutilized beds.
“Strategically, we want to adapt our original model for these highly successful programs for the future,” Brooks adds. “Additionally, our other programs also exist in a changing landscape. Clients live longer (and better) with HIV—something we celebrate. To continue our work, we asked ourselves two questions: ‘How do we remain relevant?’ and ‘Which services should we add to accomplish that?’”
In 1998, Joe Fuentes, CEO of Houston Area Community Services, formed an agency to serve HIV-positive individuals in Harris County. “We started with a budget of $650,000,” Fuentes says. “In those first days, we learned that HIV care was actually a microcosm of negative issues that permeated healthcare—stigma, discrimination, lack of access, and lack of affordability. Like many service providers, we had to address those issues and discern how to effectively treat a serious disease. Years ago there were 30 HIV service providers; now there are just a few, only four of which provide primary healthcare.”
Fuentes, HIV positive for more than 30 years, brings a unique perspective to organizational leadership. Both he and Brooks asked similar questions throughout this process: “Do we mesh philosophically? Do the services we offer complement each other? Will this merger enable our respective organizations to increase capacity?”
Bering Omega’s board was very selective. According to Brooks, “When looking at local agencies, we sought a partnership that would enable us to enhance our services, expand organizationally, and still remain true to our original mission. HACS was a good fit. Their philosophy of care is very similar to ours: comprehensive and holistic in nature. Both agencies offer a variety of services to clients—the only overlap being housing. With this merger, we will have the largest HIV-specific housing program in the region. All of our other programs are unduplicated.
“One of the goals of this ‘consolidation of operations’ was to have more access points to service,” Brooks says. “All of Bering’s existing services will remain the same. Our staff has extensive experience with their programs, and manages them expertly on a daily basis. For the foreseeable future, both organizations will exist as they always have. The merger is functioning under a management agreement that will continue for the next few months.”
“Changes are constant in this industry,” Fuentes says. “We are always trying to reduce administrative costs and utilize those dollars for direct services. As a result of the merger, HACS will have a $25 million budget and 150 employees.” (No one was laid off as a result of the merger). “Throughout our industry, people should expect to see more collaboration, mutual capacity-building, and, if the fit is right, additional merging of complementary organizations,” he says.
Nationally, HIV service providers have folded, diversified, and combined with other providers that were not “born of the epidemic.” This leaves many clients wondering how they will “fit” in a new agency. Brooks addresses this concern specifically. “Bering is very committed to those who gave us life: LGBT men and women,” he says. “Since both agencies started as AIDS service organizations, we share a history and an approach to care. The Bering board comes from the LGBT community and remains absolutely committed to maintaining relevance in Houston. Furthermore, since its earliest days, local volunteers have been at the epicenter of the work we do. They keep us continually connected and grounded to the needs of those with HIV.”
Bering Omega’s steadfast community presence is invaluable to HACS. “HACS relies heavily on government contracts,” Brooks says, “[while Bering Omega] has a nearly 30-year history of generous private-sector and individual fundraising, something that enables us to remain closely connected to our supporters.”
“Fortunately for staff, clients, and volunteers,” Fuentes says, “things have proceeded fairly well, and with virtually no disruption in service delivery. This merger was never about one particular agency. It was about properly blending two agencies in an effective and efficient manner to better serve each organization’s clients.”
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.