James Beethe was faced with a tough choice: Buy his HIV medication—or buy food. For the local resident, the high cost of caring for the illness became increasingly difficult, eventually leaving him unable to pay rent. That’s when he stepped across the threshold of Doorways.
Since 1988, the nonprofit has provided housing and supportive services to improve the quality of life and health of those affected by HIV and AIDS. At the time of the organization’s inception, the devastating disease was claiming the lives of young people at an alarming rate. “People were dying on the streets because AIDS did not qualify for medical coverage,” notes Doorways president and CEO Opal Jones. “There was a lot of misinformation about how AIDS could be contracted. Families were shutting out their family members. And the morgue couldn’t even get families to claim the bodies.”
With the mission of providing a compassionate response to the growing epidemic, community and faith leaders in the greater St. Louis and bi-state region joined forces to form Doorways. Together, they recognized that the greatest unmet need among HIV/AIDS patients was stable and secure housing. What began as a single building at Delmar Boulevard has multiplied: Today, eight facilities house 250 residents.
Every Doorways client is living below the federal poverty line, and also may be dealing with joblessness, homelessness or mental illness, Jones explains. She adds that the most vulnerable clients are at Cooper House. The namesake of one of the founding leaders, longtime president Lynne Cooper, the facility houses Doorways’ residential treatment center and administrative offices. Staff works closely with clients to arrange doctor appointments, as well as provide medication and 24-hour nursing care. Residents also are given three nutritious, high-calorie meals a day to help reverse the significant weight-loss caused by the disease. “You see people come in so emaciated—so sick, and then you see them again later and they have gained weight and are feeling good that they are able to move into their own apartment,” Jones says.
Through Doorways' bi-state services, 2,300 Missouri and Illinois residents receive help each year. “This speaks to the need that is still out there,” Jones notes. The organization’s Own Home program assists clients in paying rent or a mortgage, as well as utility bills. Beyond housing, programs include life skills, GED training, employment workshops and support groups, which focus on topics such as how to raise kids while living with HIV. There also are kids’ programs, such as tutoring, yoga and art therapy.
The services help clients live the most independent life possible, Jones says. She recalls helping one young mom and her son with a two-bedroom apartment. “She took the opportunity to go back to school, and she just got her masters. It’s telling what people can do with their lives when they have the right support.” And nothing beats housing a homeless family, Jones says. “You see a child run into their home for the first time and pick which bedroom is theirs; and the mothers say, Wow, I have a dishwasher? I have a microwave? It’s a joy to bring this to families’ lives.”
Beethe is one of countless clients who is grateful for the helping hand, from housing and food to the all-important medication he needs. “I had no idea how sick I really was. But the support I received here helped me get so much better. When I leave here, I will be much more successful, thanks to the help I’ve received.”
Volunteer Spotlight: Evelyn Cohen
Day after day, Evelyn Cohen would read in the newspaper about another young person who died of AIDS. “It was so hard to believe that every day, people were dying. It was like a plague.” The year was 1989, almost a decade into the AIDS epidemic in the U. S., and Cohen knew she had to do something.
Doorways became the answer. After joining the board of the HIV/AIDS housing and services organization that year, she immediately was moved by the dedicated, compassionate and open-minded nature of her fellow members, many of whom were area clergy.
As the local environment became increasingly unwelcome to those with HIV/AIDS, Cohen says Doorways strived to be there. “We wanted to say: We care about people with HIV/AIDS. And we wanted them to feel, These people are accepting of me.”
Led in large part by longtime president Lynne Cooper, the organization began to apply for government grants and raise funds to rehab housing for clients. “The buildings were built knowing that people were going to live in them—and die in them--because they were dying in a very short time,” Cohen recalls.
Cohen spent 10 years on the board, helping with many unique fundraisers, including the organization's biggest night: The RED gala, set for Feb. 7 at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis. Today, her passion for Doorways continues as she serves as a member of the nomination committee. “We did—and we still are—providing housing for people. Just because AIDS is off the front-burner doesn’t mean it isn’t still there. Young people think you just take a pill and you’re OK, and it’s not true. The need goes on.”
For more information, visit doorwayshousing.org.