Home Alive, a 16-year-old Seattle nonprofit that teaches self-defense workshops, never spent its $90,000 annual budget on extravagances. Notes taped up around the Capitol Hill office warn people that running both the toaster and microwave simultaneously will blow a fuse. Same goes for the space heater. And an old futon couch in one corner has burst, spilling its stuffing.

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But in spite of its frugality, Home Alive is at its breaking point. The group is $25,000 in debt, its director announced in the first week of February. So self-defense classes will cease, and employees, some whom haven’t been paid in months, will lock the office doors at the end of the month.

“I knew we were a scrappy organization, and I embraced it,” says Cait Alexander, 28, who started as Home Alive’s interim program director in early January. “But I was not prepared for the severe financial crises that we were in.

“There was no planned income, and I knew I wouldn’t get paid for the foreseeable future,” Alexander says. So the board of directors, along with staff and instructors, decided to stop operation, at least temporarily. The board will remain intact to try to find a way to resume classes.

Where did things go wrong?

Home Alive’s ledgers were in shambles, Alexander discovered when she drilled into the organization’s finances. The group had simply paid bills and accepted money as it came, she says, without accounting whether the expenses balanced with income—which is no way to keep an organization solvent. She doesn’t have access to past financial records to determine if income has dropped or expenses have increased over the years. But the problems have been ongoing; six years ago, Home Alive laid off its entire staff.

Home Alive formed in 1993 as a punk collective after Mia Zapata, lead singer of the Gits, was raped and murdered—in what appeared to be random attack—while walking through Capitol Hill on a summer night. Jesus Mezquia, convicted of the crime and sentenced to 37 years in prison, wasn’t apprehended for another decade.

“We were trying to find ways to feel safe. We wanted our friends to be getting home alive,” says Cristien Storm, one of the founders of the group. “No one was teaching self-defense, so we started our own organization.”

Historically, Seattle’s music community provided much of Home Alive’s funding. The office’s walls are papered with posters from past benefit concerts. “Income like that should be icing on the cake, but instead it’s been the cake for so long,” says Alexander, who adds that the benefit shows started to wane a few years ago. “For people committed to throwing [benefits] these days, Home Alive may not be on their short list.” Moreover, the withering economy drags on all nonprofits’ fundraising.

In addition to fundraisers, Home Alive’s income came from 1,100 people who paid for self-defense and antiviolence workshops last year.

The remainder of the organization’s income comes from online donations and sales of benefit CDs.

The group pays the salaries of two staffers, office utilities, and $1,500 a month in rent for the office—but in the last year, the rent was repeatedly past due and paychecks were often late.

“I knew I wasn’t getting my paycheck, but I didn’t realize [the group] was $25,000” in debt, says Addie Candib, a Home Alive instructor.

Board member Brett Houghton, who has only been on the board for about a year, says restructuring the organization was the only way to proceed. The board couldn’t justify continuing classes if it required them to chronically pay staff and instructors late. Alexander speculates that the group needs $50,000 to resume classes. However, she says, “if someone just handed me $50,000 and said, ‘Pay off your debt and we need you to continue on,’ we would still need to stop scheduling new classes and think about restructuring so we don’t end up having this conversation again in the future.”

On February 8, about 50 people, mostly women—including retired board members, former staff, and concerned members of the public—met in the Home Alive office to discuss the organization’s future. Suggestions ranged from dissolving the nonprofit completely to operating as a subsidiary of another nonprofit. Three small donation cans were passed around the room. Cash contributions totaled $233.74—not nearly enough to guarantee the organization will be able to resume its work soon.

“I don’t think the need has changed,” says cofounder Storm. She cites the continued demand for self-defense workshops in the wake of recent hate crimes on Capitol Hill and the murder of Shannon Harps on New Year’s Eve 2007.

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However, a sentiment exists among some antiviolence organizations that self-defense classes aren’t necessarily the ideal method to reduce violence. “Let’s not focus on what the victim can do; let’s focus on ending the violence and having the perpetrator be more accountable,” says Lee Drechsel, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network in south King County. She notes, however, that “there’s a need for lots of different kinds of organizations.”

While the group’s leadership decides how to proceed, Alexander is planning a garage sale in late February. “Most of what you see here is going to be for sale,” she says, sweeping her arm across the office like an episode of The Price Is Right. Even the toaster? “Someone already said they wanted the toaster.”

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