By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Connie Coopman’s eyes begin to water as she stands in front of Apartment 2 on West Columbia Avenue, the place she and her infant daughter Carissa called home, allowing them to avoid homelessness 30 years ago.
“I knew I needed to find some degree of normalcy for myself and my daughter,” Coopman, 51, told The Catholic Messenger during a 30th anniversary celebration of Humility Homes and Services outside the apartment complex where it all began. The nonprofit agency provided mother and daughter with a home and supportive services so that Coopman, then a senior at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, could complete her bachelor’s degree. She and Carissa were the first participants of Humility of Mary Housing, Inc., which merged two years ago with Humility of Mary Shelter, Inc. to become Humility Homes and Services, Inc. (HHSI).
“This was more than a roof over my head. It was the foundation under my feet,” said Coopman, who went on to a successful career in business, married and raised a family. She has served on the agency’s board of directors, donates to HHSI and has assisted with fundraising projects. Her daughter Carissa is a teacher, wife and young mother in the Des Moines area. Humility of Mary Housing provided lessons on finance, nutrition, child development and other life skills, along with setting goals, and bonding with other families in similar situations. “It gave you a chance to change your situation,” Coopman said.
Responding to needs
In the 30 years, since the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) established Humility of Mary Housing, Inc., the agency “has assisted hundreds of families in finding safe, quality housing and has helped them re-establish their own loving homes.” Moreover, Humility of Mary Housing “has led the Quad Cities in expanding housing options and related supportive services for families experiencing homelessness and near homelessness.” (Humility Homes and Services Guide to Giving 2019).
Sister Mary Ann Vogel, CHM, remembers meeting Coopman 30 years ago. “She came over with little Carissa … who could say no to something like that? A new mom with a 10-day-old baby girl who needed a place to live?”
Coopman’s commitment to building a life for herself and her daughter convinced the CHM sisters to accept their first participants into a program begun in response to unmet needs in the Quad Cities. The sisters started out small, Sister Vogel said, after having done their homework first. Through conversations with leaders in the Quad Cities, “we heard over and over the need for affordable housing.” That need looms even larger today, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has caused economic distress nationwide.
Thirty years ago, two populations were most in need of affordable housing, elderly persons and single-parent families. “We chose the latter group. We did not just want to be landlords; we wanted to effect change in people’s lives. We had long been educators and we wanted to help those experiencing homelessness to become self-sufficient,” Sister Vogel said. “It is very difficult to focus on such goals when one doesn’t have a place to call home and, even more so, when one has children to care for.”
Saving a shelter
“Our program grew and we had many success stories and the needs kept growing,” Sister Vogel said. Their record of accomplishment in assisting families to gain stable housing and stability in their lives led the greater community to turn to the sisters in 2008 when the only emergency shelter in the Quad Cities faced bankruptcy.
“There was great concern in the Quad Cities about what would happen to the 80 people who would be out on the streets if there was no entity to keep the doors open,” Sister Vogel said. “We stepped up, created another corporation (Humility of Mary Shelter, Inc.) and when the doors were closed, we opened them so no one ever had to leave their temporary home.”
Saying yes to that project meant accepting responsibility for federal grants of nearly $1 million and the various supportive housing programs and rent subsidies for people who would have been homeless otherwise. “Instead of staffing a shelter for 80 adult men and women, we were also responsible for the people in these other programs.”
In July 2018, the housing and shelter programs merged to become Humility Homes and Services, Inc., which commits to ending homelessness by offering housing opportunities and supportive services in the greater Quad-Cities area and striving toward a vision of a home for every person. Leaders of HHSI helped shape the Quad City Housing Cluster’s “Silos to Solutions” new initiative to address affordable housing needs of the Quad Cities.
The go-to agency
“Housing will become a more intense crisis as the pandemic exerts its influence on the economy and the health of our citizens. HHSI is the go-to agency in the Quad Cities to address these needs,” said Lloyd Kilmer, who chairs the HHSI board of directors. “The community has confidence that we will be welcoming and treat our participants with respect. We have been fortunate to gain the financial support and trust of many individuals and organizations.”
Kent Ferris, director of Social Action and Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Davenport, deeply appreciates the work of HHSI. “The novel housing programs that provide support to families is the model for many others in the area. A generation of families have now benefited. That is a beautiful and holy reality!”
As a legal aid attorney for 25 years, Linda Molyneaux of Davenport was “always happy when my clients had housing through Humility of Mary Housing. That meant I could count on my clients having support and stability as I helped them with their legal problems. And if their legal problems involved their housing with Humility of Mary, I could count on the disputes being resolved fairly, following the procedures the agency had established.”
Her experience with Humility of Mary Housing “was part of what drew me to the associate relationship” with the Congregation of the Humility of Mary 10 years ago. “After I became an associate I did not become directly involved in representing clients in disputes with this agency,” she noted.
“I’m really proud to be part of an organization that has maintained such integrity in the community over the last 30 years and continues to find innovative solutions to the housing crisis,” said Christie Adamson, assistant director of HHSI.
A national challenge
Sister Vogel expresses gratitude for staff, volunteers, donors, funders and grantors, all of whom make the work of HHSI possible. “We would not be where we are today without the tremendous staff that goes far above and beyond in what they do to help the people we serve,” she said. “It takes a ‘big village’ to support a program such as ours and to make a difference in the lives of those being served.”
“Our 30 years of experience have helped shape our understanding of the affordable housing issues,” Sister Vogel said. “An even bigger factor in that understanding is the collaborative efforts of many groups, public, private and governmental, in the Quad Cities. It is a community challenge that is part of a much bigger challenge facing our entire country. We simply have to be out advocating for the needs of those who come to us for service. So many changes have to take place in order for everyone to have a place to call home and to keep that home.”