Opal M. Jones, president and CEO of Doorways

It’s been 25 years since Doorways made its entrance to offer housing for homeless persons living with HIV and AIDS in the St. Louis area. It now serves 1,000 households in the 15-county St. Louis metropolitan area, 62 counties in outstate Missouri and 55 counties in outstate Illinois.

“You have to be homeless to qualify, so when clients come to us, they are dealing with a number of issues, from poverty to mental health, substance use, you name it,” said Opal M. Jones, president and CEO of Doorways.

Jones wants the black community to engage with AIDS as an issue, because the days of it being a white, gay, male disease are long over.

“We need to know that this is affecting us in this community in higher rates than other communities,” Jones said. “This is, in many ways, our disease now, and we’ve got to take ownership of taking care of our own brothers and sisters.”

According to Feb. 2013 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans have the most severe burden of HIV of all racial/ethnic groups in the United States. Compared with other races and ethnicities, African Americans account for a higher proportion of HIV infections in all age categories and at all stages of disease.

Despite representing only 12 to 14 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans accounted for an estimated 44 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (aged 13 years or older) in 2010. In that same year, the estimated rate of new HIV infection for black men was seven times that of white men.

Doorways runs seven residential buildings in St. Louis where individuals and families live independently, with some supportive services. The organization also provides occasional rental and utility assistance for the highest-functioning clients.

Housing remains the single most critical unmet need for persons with HIV AIDS, Jones said.

“When you are not housed stably, you cannot take care of your complex medical regimens and you are not adherent to your medicines,” Jones said. “Once you are not adherent to your medicines, sometimes those medicines might not work for you again. And if you don’t have your viral load under control through your medications, then you have a much greater risk of infecting other people with HIV.”

Housing is essential – but insufficient.

“When I started managing programs for Doorways years ago, we literally gave our residents the key to an apartment and said, ‘Okay, call us if you need anything,’” Jones said.

“We were not doing our clients justice. You can give somebody housing, but if we don’t take care of all of those other, then they are dependent on Doorways forever. I want Doorways to be a stop in the road. It’s an open door, but keep on going. We want to be there, but we want them to move on.”

It was her own struggles as a stay-at-home mother of two autistic children (Robert, 14, and Isaac, 12) that led her to advocate on behalf of others, she said.

Her advocacy extends to the policy realm. “We work statewide to get more fair legislation on the books for people living with AIDS,” she said of her work with the Missouri AIDS Task Force.

In the fall, Jones will join the National AIDS Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C.

“We specifically look at national policy and funding and all of the various things that affect AIDS housing,” she said.

Jones became the president and CEO last December, previously serving as director of Doorways’ residential programs. The Doorways staff grew by one-third last year to include 70 employees. Since that time, Doorways has provided what Jones describes as a “living wage” for all employees – $10 per hour, plus benefits – addressing the reality that some of the staff were faring worse than some of the clients.

Jones is a 2012 graduate of the Coro Women in Leadership program of Focus St. Louis and earned a bachelor’s of science in management and organizational behavior from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Jones said Doorways is on track to hit $7 million in revenue this year.

Funding comes mostly from federal, state and local support, although individual donations are always needed and welcomed. Last year, it became a Medicaid provider.

But current funding leaves many needs unmet. Doorways has hundreds of people on its waiting list, some dating back almost three years, Jones said, “We have such a great need out here,” she said, “that we cannot house everyone that needs housing.”

Doorways will hold a 25th anniversary celebration, “The Courage to Live,” 4-7 p.m. Thursday, October 17at Soulard Preservation Hall, 1921 S. 9th St. It is free of charge and open to the public. Dress is business casual and light hors d'oerves will be served. For more information, call 314-535-1919, email info@doorwayshousing.org or visit http://www.doorwayshousing.org.

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