By NANCY FOWLER
In 2017, Gary Brister of Chicago was newly out of jail and trying to maintain a life without the cocaine and crystal meth he'd used for nearly a decade. A patchwork of recovery and housing programs helped, but he needed a solid path back to stability.
"I had lost my business of 12 years, my home, my clothes — everything," Brister said.
Gary Brister credits the support and stability he found at Bonaventure House with saving his life.
Then Brister, 45, discovered Bona–venture House in Chicago's Lakeview
neighborhood. The sober house is one of four programs of the AMITA Health Housing and Health Alliance, formerly known as Alexian Brothers Housing and Health Alliance. The programs serve individuals of all sexual orientations. Last year, the alliance had 367 clients, about one quarter identifying as LGBTQ.
At Bonaventure House, Brister found a number of gay, HIV-positive men like himself and the support he needed to eventually land a job as a floral designer, an apartment and a partner.
"It truly saved my life," Brister said.
The Alexian Brothers congregation opened Bonaventure House in 1989 in a convent they had repurposed as a hospice for AIDS patients. The patients they cared for were almost exclusively gay men with no place else to go. Among their ministries, the Alexian Brothers also sponsored Alexian Brothers Health System, which became a part of St. Louis-based Ascension in 2011. Ascension formed a joint venture with Adventist Midwest in 2014 to form AMITA Health, which would later also include Presence Health.
Korrey Kooistra and Richard Gash pause from cheering participants in the AIDS Run & Walk 2020 Chicago fundraiser. Kooistra is executive director of the AMITA Health Housing and Health Alliance and Gash is lead receptionist at the alliance's Bonaventure House, having regained his footing as a resident there.
AMITA Health, based in suburban Chicago, has continued the brothers' legacy of caring for the most marginalized in society in part through support for the Housing and Health Alliance. Korrey Kooistra, the alliance's executive director and AMITA associate vice president, says the organization's work is a continuation of the Alexian Brothers' mission.
"The brothers believed all people deserve dignity, and opened their doors for everyone," Kooistra said. "That's what still guides us today."
'Housing is health care'
Kooistra says disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ individuals struggle in their daily lives with housing insecurity, substance abuse, employment discrimination, the threat of violence, food insecurity, mental health issues and access to health care. She said such hardships fall most heavily on Black LGBTQ individuals and on all transgender people.
Many have experienced shame while seeking health care in the past. They may remain wary, which is one reason the Housing and Health Alliance's embrace of this community is so important, Kooistra said.
Bonaventure House is adorned with a balloon rainbow for its annual Sober and Proud event last year.
"Our focus has always been that housing is health care," Kooistra said. "You might not take medications if you don't have a home. You might not go to the doctor if there's nowhere for the doctor's office to call to set your appointment. But when you have a roof over your head and three meals a day, you start to see your health improve."
Focusing on LGBTQ youth
A disproportionate number of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and many of them are rejected by their families, according to Kooistra. The Housing and Health Alliance is helping to address this problem through The Harbor sobriety-based residence in Waukegan, Illinois, for those 18 and up. The housing alliance opened The Harbor in 1998 in Lake County where it has long partnered with the Lake County Health Department and has provided services to its clients. Two years ago, the alliance began a program with the health department, area schools and an indoor sports facility, with the goal of connecting with homeless and LGBTQ youth.
"It's been interesting to see when you partner with others, how much further you can throw out a net to connect to people," Kooistra said.
Efforts to help LGBTQ youth in Lake County also include launching Waukegan's first pride parade in 2019. This year, to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, participants drove in cars rather than marching. The change did not detract from the importance of this event, which provides a life-changing visibility for the area's entire LGBTQ population, Kooistra said.
"It takes away any perception that, 'We don't have to worry about LGBTQ issues because this is not something that's in our community.' It's in every community, in every corner of our world,'" Kooistra said. "The parade tells this population that they're cared about, that they matter and should be celebrated."
Stable housing, spiritual healing
Richard Gash of Chicago was in his 30s when he found himself homeless. He's a gay, HIV-positive man who once abused cocaine and crystal meth. He was able to concentrate on his recovery from substance dependence at Bonaventure House.
For Gash, 50, one of the most valuable aspects of the Bonaventure experience is that residents can spend up to two years there. When he arrived, shortly after a relapse, Gash was surprised to hear his case manager insist he not worry about the future for a full year.
"He told me, 'I do not even want you to think about housing; I want you to focus on your recovery and on your health, see your doctor, see your psychiatrist,'" Gash said.
Gash, a former restaurant manager, enjoyed the gentle spiritual guidance offered at Bonaventure.
"They allowed me to find myself, to find my true faith," Gash said, "and to discover who I was and who God is to me."
He also benefited from the occupational therapy that helped him manage his weekly appointments, and learn to make and stick to a budget. He ended up working part-time, then full-time as Bonaventure's lead receptionist, a position he holds today. "They kind of taught me how to be an adult," Gash said.
Seeking out the marginalized
Alexian Brothers' focus on LGBTQ clients inspires John Halstead, AMITA Health's chief mission integration officer and a senior vice president. The brothers trace their lineage back to the 1300s when groups of religious men cared for victims of the black plague.
The congregation's first hospital in the U.S., a wood frame house in Chicago, cared for patients in the city's 1866 cholera outbreak. They carried that desire to work with society's disadvantaged forward, opening Bonaventure House as a home for HIV/AIDS positive people society had shunned.
"They constantly lean in to serve these people who are marginalized," Halstead said. "So AMITA has a historical, a spiritual and a theological calling to engage in this work, to meet the needs of these individuals."
AMITA's Housing and Health Alliance puts into action the system's foundational beliefs about providing for vulnerable populations, Kooistra said.
"We are very much supported by our Catholic health system to do this work with everyone that we serve, including the LGBTQ population," Kooistra said.
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