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With expansion, St. Louis nonprofit continues to open doors for HIV/AIDS clients

Opal Jones and Cory McCormick
Danny Wicentowski
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Doorways President Opal Jones and client Cory Hutchison, who last week moved into housing on the nonprofit's new $40 million campus

Founded in 1988, the nonprofit Doorways has spent decades connecting people living with HIV/AIDS with housing. However, for much of its existence, the nonprofit resorted to placing clients in emergency or “flex” housing by renting rooms in motels and boarding houses until permanent housing could be found.

But one night, Opal Jones, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, realized that the system needed to be more than just a decentralized collection of short-term living spaces.

“I got a call from one of our transgender female residents,” Jones recounted on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “She said, ‘I am afraid to go in there, you have to walk down the side of this house, down the steps in through the back. And I'd rather sleep in my car than go in there.’”

The call sparked introspection about the nonprofit’s strategy: “We had to take a hard look at ourselves and say, ‘Is this intervention working?’”

She continued: “It turned out it was not. It was oftentimes a Band-Aid, and we'd have clients coming back year after year waiting for their 60 days of emergency housing.”

That hard look resulted in a new plan: building new housing and moving the nonprofit’s headquarters to a $40 million campus on Jefferson Avenue. Officially opened in October, the new campus includes 50 housing units. For Jones, the campus and expanded housing provided a better strategy. The goal, Jones said, is to prepare residents “for independence and then be ready for the next group of people.”

Jones estimates there are roughly 15,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the St. Louis region. Cory McCormick, a Doorways program participant, moved into a new apartment on the Doorways campus last week.

Before that, he said, “I came from not having anything, literally getting to the point where I've lost everything in my life, my home, car and job.”

McCormick said a caseworker eventually referred him to Doorways.

“It’s a big change to go from something like that to the Jefferson campus where … it feels like a big, funny, goofy, family who just loves to make sure that you're OK.”

The Doorways campus is continuing its expansion. A second planned phase will include building 39 apartments and providing the residents with on-site case management, behavioral health and health screening services.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.