Cheryl walked into her living room, grabbed a picture of her four children, and clutched it tightly to her chest. “I wish they could be with me here,” she said.
Cheryl is the first woman housed in The Salvation Army’s new Veterans Residence, a 48-unit affordable housing development for veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Although homelessness is nothing new to the veteran population, the number of enlisted women is growing, a problem because the Department of Veterans Affairs has historically built its programs for men. The Salvation Army’s Veterans Residence is one of the first of its kind in the state for offering both permanent and transitional housing to women as well as men.
After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1981, Cheryl and her husband decided she would stay home to raise the couple’s family; by the time she was 23, she had three children. Originally from the St. Louis Metro area, Cheryl became profoundly homesick while raising three small children across the country in California. After giving birth to her fourth child, she and her family moved to Ohio, where Cheryl grew severely depressed.
“We only came home to see my family maybe two times a year and it just wasn’t enough,” she said. “I had four children, a relationship that was falling apart, and no support system.”
To try and cope with her depression, Cheryl developed an addiction to prescription pain medication.
“I got to the point where I was taking so much that I could barely get out of bed. Almost to the point where I was just not going to wake up at all,” she said. “The thing is, the pills help at first, but the more you take them, the more depressed you get.”
Cheryl realized she had hit bottom and it was time to pull herself up, if not for her, for her children.
“They didn’t know about my addiction. I was still an active mother and took them to school and attended school functions; I was just kind of out of it,” she said. “I eventually realized I wanted to wake up every day. I had a lot to live for.”
In 2000, Cheryl returned to St. Louis in an effort to get clean. She had two jobs, her own place, and things were looking up. But after a work injury left her with a broken arm, she was forced to move in with her daughter and eventually a friend who became mentally abusive. But just like she had done several times before, Cheryl picked herself up and found the inspiration from her children to get help.
She went able to kick her addiction for good at the Bell Street Clinic, with help from the rehabilitation domiciliary through the Jefferson Barracks Division of the VA Medical Center.
“I knew once I was clean that I could not return to the abusive situation I was in. I couldn’t live with him anymore,” Cheryl said. “I went to someone at Jefferson Barracks and they referred me to The Salvation Army, where I learned about the Veterans Residence. I didn’t even know something like that existed.”
Cheryl has now been clean for just over one year and is enjoying her newfound sobriety and independence.
“I’m a much healthier and happier person, and I love it at the Veterans Residence,” she said. “I may not be the same gender as the rest of the residents, but we have a common thread that connects us all as veterans. We feel connected. And that connection helps us all stay strong.”
Cheryl said she will need that strength to help two of her children, who are now struggling with heroin addiction and have overdosed several times.
“One of my sons told me on the phone that I am his inspiration to get clean, and that he knows he can get better because I was able to do it,” she said. “Losing my sobriety is not an option. I’m not just doing this for me, I’m doing it for my children.”
Cheryl has joined two heroin-addiction awareness groups, Stop the Heroin Movement and Angel Moms over St. Louis, and hopes to soon move her children closer to get them the help they need.
“I can’t thank The Salvation Army enough for what they’ve been able to give me,” she said as she held the picture of her children. “They’re not just saving my life, they’re saving my children’s, too.”
To support Cheryl and other veterans like her through the Combined Federal Campaign, please choose CFC code 43748 to support The Salvation Army.
For more information about The Salvation Army’s Veterans Residence and the various other programs we offer, please visit www. STLSalvationArmy.org.