Many people in the local recovery community celebrated when the Pride Center at Equality Park finally reopened its doors after being closed for most in person services for 15 months due to the pandemic.
They were tired of meeting virtually and desperately needed in-person meetings.
But that celebration quickly turned sour when the leaders of these recovery-oriented groups learned the Pride Center would be drastically increasing their rents going forward. Some groups have since left, while the others are now struggling to afford the additional costs.
“I am outraged over the Pride Center. It seems they are forcing 12-step recovery meetings to go elsewhere by raising their rents to impossible heights. It’s a disgrace, appalling, and doing a disservice to the community they purport to support,” said Guy Veronick, in a letter to SFGN.
In many cases, the rent for recovery-orientated groups has more than doubled. Now the groups are faced with a stark choice — leave the Pride Center or continue to struggle to pay rent. For example, one Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets five days a week at the center paid $400 per month before the pandemic. Now, they’re paying more than $1,000.
Meanwhile, all of the Narcotics Anonymous groups have now left the center. According to Veronick, the Crystal Meth Anonymous group has also left.
“While it would be highly inappropriate to disclose the details of every contract with every group, I can tell you we have provided enormously generous discounts to these groups,” Robert Boo, CEO of the Pride Center, said in a letter to SFGN.
SFGN spoke to a half dozen members of these recovery-oriented groups, who are all upset and angry. Due to the anonymous nature of these programs, most of the members did not feel comfortable having their identifies in the newspaper.
These groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, are made up of volunteers; no one receives compensation. Each group collects money by passing around a basket at the end of each meeting where members typically donate $1, sometimes more. These programs’ bylaws — or rather “traditions” as they are internally called — prohibit groups from charging any dues or fees to attend.
In addition, they are not allowed to solicit outside donations, such as corporate sponsors. This is meant to keep the program open to any person dealing with addiction issues in need of help, as well as keeping the groups free from any conflicts of interest.
The Pride Center has provided a safe space for these groups for at least 25 years — long before they moved into their current location on Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors.
SFGN sent the Pride Center a list of specific questions addressing the rent increase and other concerns that members of these 12-step groups had. They responded with a 2,500-word letter addressing some of the questions and outlining their new COVID policies and procedures. (Their entire response can be viewed here.)
“Samantha McCoy, our Customer Service Coordinator for The Pride Center, oversees all rental agreements. She’s experienced very healthy, very collaborative communication with group leaders in securing new usage agreements for groups,” Boo’s letter reads.
Some of the members SFGN spoke to did in fact praise McCoy, telling SFGN that she really fought for them. Regardless, though, the end result was still a drastic increase in their rents.
“We have established and will apply standard and generous rental discount rates for Equality Park Business Partners [our nonprofit tenants on campus] and progressively more generous discounts for regular/ongoing monthly, weekly and daily groups,” the letter reads.
Oftentimes, venues that host 12-step recovery meetings will base the rent on a percentage of donations they receive. This is because meeting attendance — and therefore donations — can wildly fluctuate. For example, the groups that decided to continue to meet at the Pride Center have seen their in-person attendance drop since the reopening; they’re hoping these numbers will eventually increase.
So the groups have been hit doubly hard — more rent and now fewer people to help pay for it.
“It would not be just or equitable for one type of support group to be paying a higher rate than another for the use of the same space at a similar time,” the letter from Boo reads. “Nor would it be just or equitable to apply a different standard in determining the room rate for one type of recovery group than a recovery group for a different substance. That’s why we have standard rates and progressive, standard discounts for groups.”
Veronick disagrees, saying LGBT people dealing with addiction issues are some of the most vulnerable and in-need members of the community. The statistics back him up. According to multiple media reports, overdoses nationally have surged 30% during the pandemic to 93,000 in 2020 — the highest ever recorded. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health states on its website “substance use patterns reported by sexual minority adults … are higher compared to those reported by heterosexual adults.” For example, the latest data available shows that 9% of sexual minorities abused opioids compared to 3.8% of the overall adult population.
“We're talking about recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. I’m really shocked and hurt and surprised that the Pride Center could be so greedy with 12-step programs,” Veronick said. “This is just a way for them to get rid of us.”
Veronick is the treasurer of the group he attended on Thursday evenings. They were forced to leave the center after their rent was raised from $65 a month to $168.75. Their new location charges $60 a month.
“They almost tripled the rent for a meeting with 10 to 15 people,” he said.
Veronick also attends a 5:45 p.m. meeting, whose rent was increased 250%, where he said members have been announcing that the group is looking for a new home since they cannot afford the rent anymore.
“They say it at every meeting, they’re looking for a new place,” he said.
If any of these recovery-oriented groups do collect money above and beyond the cost of rent, it goes to buy things such as literature and meeting lists; chips and key tags to celebrate sobriety; and coffee. If there are leftover funds after that, the money is used to support regional programs, such as a local hotline to assist people looking for meetings or support.
Members of the groups that have decided to stay at the Pride Center told SFGN they will have little to no money to support these programs going forward because of the increased rent.
A couple of other groups left the center before the facility reopened because they wanted to start meeting in person again. Members of those groups tell SFGN, though, that there is no way they can afford to come back to the Pride Center.
“The Rainbow Group was the original group of any meeting at the Pride Center,” a member of the group said.
They met once a week and paid $20 per meeting. The member says the rent would have been raised to $40 or $60 per meeting if they were to come back. Currently they’re meeting at Lambda South, an LGBT recovery clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale, off of Las Olas Boulevard, where they are paying $60 a month.
The discounts mentioned by Boo may be generous, but even so, the rents have still more than doubled since the reopening.
“All of these 12-step meetings that meet at the Pride Center have supported the center for years. Twelve-step recovery groups do not charge dues or fees,” Veronick said. “We rely on donations for members who are just getting their lives back on track.”
The member of these groups said they were told by the center that the rents were being raised due to the cleaning and sanitizing costs. The letter does mention extra cleaning costs, but cleaning alone doesn’t appear to necessitate the drastic increase in rent.
The letter from Boo addresses the issue: “The Center continues to underwrite costs for groups. As you can imagine, the discounted hourly rate, for instance, for a daily group using a 2,108-square-foot room with exclusive access to four restrooms does not cover the facility staff’s costs for cleaning and sanitizing that room and restrooms before and after every meeting — much less the costs of security, AC, cleaning and sanitation supplies and many other expenses incurred for those spaces.”
But many of those costs, such as air conditioning, and “exclusive access to four restrooms” are the same as before the pandemic.
The letter goes on to add: “Last year, we also installed Plexiglas shields in the Cyber Center and in offices where HIV testing or other individual services occur to support the reopening of these programs on campus. These shields are cleaned and sanitized daily.”
The letter does not explain why these additions would increase the rent for 12-step groups.
“We strongly believe in the immense value of recovery and peer support groups, and although our costs for staff, security, utilities, cleaning and sanitation are exponentially higher now than when we moved to this campus in 2009, we have worked hard over many years to ensure that group rental rates remain low,” the letter reads.
Not everyone is satisfied with the Pride Center’s responses to the rent increases.
“I wonder if the generous donors of the Pride Center are aware of this?” wrote Eric Masse-Demarco in a letter to the editor to SFGN. “Does the community know that a place where gay 12-step groups could go for recovery meetings is pushing the groups away by price gouging?”
In order to compare the rates, SFGN reached out to Compass, the LGBT community center in Palm Beach County, to find out what they charged a 12-step group that meets at their facility.
“There is no ‘rent’ being paid for the space. Community lead groups ask participants if they would like to make a donation to the center. There is no specific dollar amount that we request,” a spokesperson wrote to SFGN in an email. “The space is reserved for the group's ongoing meetings whether they pay or not since it is a free service that benefits the community.”
The member of the Rainbow Group mentioned how the group was started by three HIV-positive, straight people who chose to meet at an LGBT community center because of the stigma surrounding HIV in the 1980s.
“It’s heartbreaking we had to move out of there. That was our home,” the member of the Rainbow Group said. “But it’s their loss too. We were a resource to them, more than they were to us. When it’s a community center, it’s supposed to be serving the community.”