As the fight against AIDS in the gay community fades into the background while equality issues such as same-sex marriage take center stage, one San Francisco HIV/AIDS organization is suffering the financial consequences and retooling to ensure its survival.
After 21 years of raising more than $4 million for dozens of local HIV/AIDS charities through the sale of small gifts, Under One Roof is closing the store it leases in the Castro.
"AIDS is no longer sort of the darling of charitable fundraising and giving," said Jennifer Kutz, a spokeswoman for the organization. "The bottom line is we're not giving enough money to the charities we need to support."
The physical storefront will be gone from Castro Street by next March, but the organization hopes a change to holiday pop-up stores with a greater focus on fundraising will bring more money to its beneficiaries. Cash and merchandise contributions to the store have fallen by more than half since 2009 as the large donations that once poured in from corporations like Wells Fargo have vanished.
"We don't make enough profit to support our organizations by just simply operating a normal retail store," Kutz said. "We're sort of going back to our roots."
Founded by San Francisco artist Daniel Goldstein in 1991 at the height of the AIDS crisis, Under One Roof looks very different today than it did two decades ago. Eighty-five percent of its merchandise now is bought wholesale; only the volunteers with AIDS and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender informational pamphlets greeting visitors at the door distinguish the store from any other boutique selling books, greeting cards and Christmas ornaments.
But in the beginning, everything in the store was donated by at least 50 other AIDS nonprofits, and all the revenue went right back to those groups. Using space donated by the Names Project at the site of Harvey Milk's first camera shop on Market Street, Under One Roof raised $117,000 its first year in just six weeks before Christmas and an additional $173,000 the next year.
"There was nothing in the city that connected all the organizations, and that's why we called it Under One Roof," said Goldstein, 62. "We had hundreds of volunteers."
Hit by recession
As demand grew, the store started operating year round and moved to Castro Street in the early 2000s. Its final move, in 2008, to a bigger space at 518 Castro St. proved to be bad timing as the recession took hold, said board Chairman Tony Hart, who joined Under One Roof in February as the charity considered a new direction.
"I think they bit off more than they could chew, and the economy changed," Hart said. "People stopped buying after 2008."
In 2010, Under One Roof paid out only $14,000 to the 22 groups it supports. Staff cuts helped them boost that number to $40,000 in 2011. But with rent and property taxes at $200,000 a year and $225,000 paying for personnel, the status quo was unsustainable.
Under One Roof officials are still determining how much money they can make through fundraisers and selling Christmas gifts at donated spaces, but they are convinced it will be an improvement.
"We know this is the right thing to help people that really, really need it," Kutz said.
The hard times for Under One Roof reflect the changes the LGBT community has undergone since the days when the Castro was a front line in the war against AIDS, said Phil Siegel, the original spokesman for Under One Roof.
"That's all anyone did, 24/7 - we lived, breathed and fought AIDS," the 54-year-old said. "That kind of energy ... I don't think it exists anymore."
Sense of purpose
Goldstein remembers his organization bringing a sense of purpose to a community that felt helpless as attending funerals for loved ones who died of AIDS became commonplace.
"When we first opened the store, everyone, not just gay people, but straight people, would feel like there was nothing they could do to stop the epidemic, but they could at least buy a mug or a cookbook to support the cause," he said. "When they came up to the cash register, they'd say, 'Thank you.' "
Goldstein, who hasn't been part of the decision-making process at Under One Roof since the 1990s, said the board is doing the right thing.
"We had a good run," he said. "It's a little bit sad, but for any organization to do the same thing for 21 years is pretty amazing."
For more information, go to Under One Roof's website: www.underoneroof.org.
Neal J. Riley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @realdealneal