Too vital to fail

Bailouts are for businesses -- but what about essential services?
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OPINION The "too big to fail" rationale is a mystery to citizens forced to fund these billion-dollar ventures.

Suppose an entity is not too big but "too vital to fail"? Which power broker bestows standing to even ask for a bailout? I started thinking about "too vital to fail" when two seemingly unrelated incidents intersected in my consciousness, one a tragedy, the other simply heart-breaking.

The first incident happened in Oakland, eight blocks from where I teach journalism. A local editor was gunned down in a brazen daytime assassination. Chauncey Bailey was supposedly about to publish a story in the Oakland Post on the financial misdeeds of the local Your Black Muslim Bakery. Bay Area journalists (including the Guardian) formed the Chauncey Bailey Project, a group effort to dig up facts of the killing and keep the story prominent. Two years after Bailey's slaying — with the shooter agreeing to testify against the man who ordered him to pull the trigger — the case is close to a trial date.

The second incident involved Daily Bread, a nonprofit for which I transported food each Tuesday from a Berkeley market to an AIDS center on Shattuck Avenue. In summer of 2008, the AIDS center closed, and reopened in new quarters on San Pablo Avenue in downtown Oakland.

The first day I delivered food I realized it was the old Black Muslim Bakery building, bought and renovated at huge expense by a local AIDS activist-philanthropist. Employees took pride in their new surroundings. Then came Tuesday, May 5. With my bags of food on the sidewalk, I tried the door and found the place locked up. "We're closed," announced Peggy, executive director of Vital Life Services. "Today?" I asked. "For good," she replied. "Our funding is no longer there."

This was a staggering loss to the community, the clients, and the employees. We agreed to continue the battle for funds. I suggested renaming the building the Chauncey Bailey Center, to which Peggy readily agreed. It would be Bailey's perfect legacy (not to mention the irony).

A week later the Oakland Tribune ran the center's obit. I was amazed at just how vital this place was. "The nonprofit ... provided critical support, case management, mental health counseling, hot meals, and much more in one location to low-income and homeless clients with HIV and AIDS," the article said. In fact, the center was saving Alameda County millions of dollars since it prevented AIDS- and HIV-infected people from going to a hospital emergency room, which cost the county $10,000 a day.

My first crack at fundraising led me to a celebratory video made when the center opened last September. Local politicians were on hand, smiling radiantly and welcoming this wonderful addition to the Golden Gate neighborhood. When the funding dried up, none of our "public servants" was to be seen. One more irony was noted in the Tribune article: the Congressional representative of the district, Barbara Lee, "has made the fight against AIDS one of her biggest issues."

I continue my battle for funding in these financially perilous times. Do I qualify as merely a citizen to get a hearing in Washington for a bailout? Will someone (or foundation) step forward and launch the Chauncey Bailey Center, a place "too vital to fail"?

(The center video and more can be seen at www.vitalcalifornia.org.)

Burt Dragin teaches journalism at Laney College in Oakland and is the author of Six to Five Against: A Gambler's Odyssey. (bdragin@peralta.edu)