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Commentary: Lynne Cooper holds uncommon vision of housing as health care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2012 - The Bible's wisdom literature warns that people perish where there is no vision (Proverbs 29:18). Vision, it is implied, is a gift given to a few so that the many might prosper. It is a rare and beautiful gift, this vision that leads people to life.

It is rare, but in every generation there are those who find it, or maybe those who are found by it when circumstances insist. In either case we in St. Louis have been fortunate to live in the same city as a visionary named Lynne Cooper.

Cooper, who very recently retired as president of Doorways Interfaith HIV housing, found the foresight, compassion, energy and pure gumption to save thousands from homelessness and certain death. In the process, Cooper protected countless others who would have been affected and potentially infected by those with HIV. Without a home, those infected with HIV are not only much more likely to get sick and die, but they are many times less likely to take medication. In the case of HIV, this means you are more likely to infect those with whom you may share needles or have sex.

Today, Doorways provides housing and care for 1,000 households affected with HIV/AIDS each year, has an annual operating budget of $5 million, and has brought more $100 million of competitive housing dollars to Missouri. Just 25 years ago Doorways didn’t exist. The difference between then and now can predominately be traced to Lynne Cooper.

In the late 1980s many young men were dying well before their time. HIV, then just beginning to be understood, was taking lives, decimating families and engendering fear along a large swath of the U.S. population. St. Louis was hardly immune. Some in the local community were talking in terms of sin and retribution. Others heard a call of compassion to help the sick and the dying, while the vast majority were simply ignoring the issue.

Cooper, a nun, began to meet with a few concerned clergy and community leaders. In those early meetings, there were representatives from the Catholic Archdiocese, a local rabbi, and ministers from Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ traditions.

As the group began to discuss the outstanding need of people infected with  HIV, they came to recognize that stable and secure housing was essential. This early vision, that safe housing is a prerequisite for effective treatment of HIV, has since been born out through research. For those who are HIV positive, housing is health care.

In 1988, this group founded Doorways, an Interfaith AIDS Residence Program. They did so with four apartments. This small initiative of clergy and community leaders knew they needed dynamic leadership. In 1989 they asked Lynne to be the executive director. The board would change her title to president in 1996 and upon her retirement the board has made her, "president emeritus." But titles can never communicate all that her visionary commitment has meant to this organization or to the local community.

Today Doorways offers rent, mortgage and utility assistance to more than 700 households each month and apartments for 280 people, including 80 children. It provides residential care for 36 people too ill to live independently in Missouri's first residential care facility for those with AIDS. Its mission also includes programs for AIDS housing in outstate Missouri and Illinois and a "Jumpstart" for 20 single parents living with AIDS who receive help with rent, utilities, education, transportation, food and childcare.

Cooper retired from Doorways at the end of September. Tom and Carol Voss, supporters of the organization, hosted a party in honor of her career at the Ameren headquarters. Moving speeches were given by clients and staff. One of the most poignant moments of the evening was Evelyn Cohen’s description of those early derelict apartments, where Lynne was not only the administrator but the plumber.

As a local clergy person, I have known of Doorways for about four years and have been on the board for about a year and a half. In full disclosure I now consider Lynne Cooper a personal friend. But I expect that is true of the vast majority of people who have met her; she emanates a charisma that draws you in, a compassion you can’t help but take personally.

I saw this in great effect when at my first board meeting we spent a couple of hours poring over byzantine budget sheets and financial reports. It was all very dry. All the economic challenges of our day were there in spades.

As we came to the end of the afternoon, a couple of the most darling little girls you've ever seen, about 5 years old, both with pig tails and summer dresses, came up to the glass door of the conference. They smiled and waved. I waved back.

They weren't as interested in me as the cookies on the table in front of me. Lynne Cooper saw this and immediately took the platter out to them — to their evident appreciation, displayed in toothy grins. They lived in the housing complex. Their parents, poor and sick, where being housed, and these young lives were being saved, because of those facts, figures and budget sheets.

Cooper has been that rare leader who could drop everything at a moment’s notice for the all-important task of delivering a cookie, and who at the same time can get her head around unfathomable HUD residential requests and arcane governmental budget requirements.

That capacity of embracing the personal and corporate has made her a very effective manager. Obviously she didn’t build the organization by herself. She has been known has a very effective mentor to young leaders — some of whom now run other human service agencies.

Opal Jones is one such mentee, hired by Lynne several years ago. She told me that Cooper gave her the grace to make mistakes, but if something didn’t work out as expected; she expected that you would take responsibility.

“Cultivating leadership within the organization,” Opal said, “was very important to her.” In conversations with multiple Doorways staff, past and present, it seems Cooper imbibed the powerful advice of Pope Gregory on pastoral care: Like the Good Samaritan apply both wine (which stings and cleans) and oil (which comforts and soothes) to the wounds of those for whom you are caring.

Cooper’s leadership hasn’t gone without notice. She served on President Clinton’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and has received numerous positive citations and awards. The most recent came on the evening of Sept. 22 when Cooper was awarded the “Individual Equality Award” by the Human Rights Campaign.

In her acceptance speech, Cooper referenced the Erik Erikson theory of development: Mature adults reach a stage of either “generativity or stagnation.” The former is marked by finding lasting meaning and purpose often by investing in the next generation. It is Cooper’s contention that the LGBTQ movement has progressed to generativity. The idea is that the local community has created numerous programs and institutions that help engender health and happiness. These programs are staffed by the energy and dedication of many people in the gay community even though AIDS is no longer a “gay disease.”

Here is part of what Cooper said: “Having reached this adult stage of generativity, our movement has gotten over its narrow selves. We are now proudly Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered. Our tent is big; it is inclusive.

St. Louis Effort for AIDS is no longer the gay organization, it is the education organization. Food Outreach takes care of people with HIV and cancer regardless of their orientation. Doorways is pondering how housing can prevent HIV among all varieties of homeless young people. These agencies are no longer segments of a gay movement, they are leaders and teachers about how to deal with any disease, how to address poverty itself, and what every human being deserves in food, housing and knowledge to life a full life. We are no longer just taking care of ourselves. In our maturity as a movement, we are leading the way in this world to a better more empathetic humanity.”

I think she is right about this. If so, she is largely to blame.