The invitation to Sunday dinner twisted her stomach into knots. She knew the doors at Menchville House locked early on Sundays, and she was supposed to cook the house meal that night. But she couldn't turn down her daughter. As the burgers sizzled, Cheryl glanced at the clock above the stove. She had to go. And, for the first time in more than a year, she slipped.
"I have to go. I have to go," she blurted. "Curfew is at 10."
Shasa narrowed her eyes as she questioned her mother, "Why do you have a curfew?"
It was over. Her daughter knew.
Cheryl Flemming moved into Menchville House at 2 p.m. on April 21, 2009, her ankles swollen, her brow moist, her T-shirt saturated with the smell of 7-Eleven chicken fingers. Dietra, the house nurse, took her blood pressure and said she should be having a stroke. Cheryl told her she had been sleeping in her car for seven months.
The visit was supposed to be a quick orientation. They gave her a bed that night.
"It was the first time I had laid my head on clean sheets in a long time," she remembers as a single tear draws a path down her cheek.
The 61-year-old, a former program director for the University of Maryland, can't exactly explain how she got into this mess. She had a savings account. She had a high-rise apartment. She had a life. As long as she had an education and worked hard, she would be OK. Her momma had promised it.
But sometime after a layoff and the end of a bad relationship, she found herself on I-95 driving her Pontiac Grand Am to Hampton, where her daughter and son-in-law lived with their two kids in military base housing. The couple had planned a romantic weekend away on the Eastern Shore, and Cheryl agreed to watch her grandchildren.
What Shasa and Jason didn't know was that Cheryl didn't have the plans or the money to go home.
When the pocket change dried up, Cheryl turned her Grand Am into home, keeping her interview suits pressed and clean inside of a dry cleaning bag hung on the back door.
She begged a local 7-Eleven owner to hire her when she ran out of options. He took one look at her resume and balked.
"It was such a knock backwards," she says, her lips trembling. "But I do what I have to do. I even went out to an auto store in Williamsburg after
So she begged the 7-Eleven owner to hire her. She would work any hours he asked; she would do any task.
He didn't know she was homeless, but she did enough to convince him she was desperate.
After work, Cheryl would park her car in a church's parking lot. It felt safe there. That is, until a police officer asked her to move.
After that, she stationed her car around the corner from the social services office. She knew the police drove through the surrounding area several times a day.
"I could lock all of my doors. No one sleeps deeply sitting up anyway," she says, as she sits on a maroon chair in her newly appointed, government-subsidized apartment. "I was raised in Brooklyn; I had something to protect myself."
Not long after her Grand Am became home, Cheryl contacted the
On April 21, 2009, they called.
When Cheryl moved into her room, a freshly painted square made cozy with pillows, blankets, access to a bathroom and a closet to hang her interview suits, it was the first time she had her own space in nearly a year.
"This was not a homeless shelter, this was the
Within weeks, staff pegged Cheryl, one of the oldest women to live in Menchville House, as a model resident. She quickly became what the other women - there can be as many as 16 women and 30 children in the house - called the Head Resident.
She doled out the chores, made sure the ladies took turns cooking for the house in the industrial outfitted kitchen downstairs, and mentored younger women who didn't know if they had the strength to recover.
Just as her stay at Menchville House was coming to an end, Cheryl got the call from public housing. She had applied for an apartment in a government-subsidized seniors' facility nearly the minute she arrived at Menchville House. Her application had been approved. The wages she was earning in temporary jobs would be enough to cover her rent.
"Everything in this apartment means something to me, because it represents someone's kindness," she says, as she sweeps a graceful hand over the top of a chipped coffee table. "I've always been a provider, not a taker. But I'm strong-willed, and I always told the girls in Menchville to never give up."
AN ARMY OF ONE
It was Sylvia Jones, the center's executive director, who asked Cheryl to take on that mentoring, mothering role.
Sylvia, a former Army officer with a quick-footed gait, keeps a focused eye on the state of her house. Beds must be made, sheets straight, children tidy and looked after, the kitchen shining. Budgets are key to success for Menchville House and the ladies under its roof, and Sylvia keeps a watchful eye on both. Some automatically report their budget status when Sylvia marches through a room.
"I don't tell them that I have to be able to bounce a quarter on their beds," she says, her mouth threatening to twitch into a smile. "But I'd love to."
A SOAP OPERA
Living under Sylvia's watch is just what most ladies at Menchville House need, Heila Walker admits.
The 53-year-old lives in the home's largest room where she can nestle with her three children - ages 7, 11 and 13 - behind a door that offers the calming effect of a lock. There are four beds, a bathroom just for their family, and a roomy closet to hold everyone's school clothes. The heavy 1980s TV that sits on the floor in front of Heila's bed even gets a clear color picture of at least one local channel.
But the collection of American Girl dolls on top of the borrowed dresser implies a lost past.
"It's just an incredulous feeling," she says in a whisper, eyes cast to the floor. "I never thought that this could happen to me; and, oh god, did I feel out of place."
The sets of
Then the babies came, the marriage dissolved, and the career was a memory, one of the only memories, that made her smile.
Her oldest child, a son in his early 20s, is the one who referred his mother to Menchville House. The family had moved to the area when volatile, but not yet violent, fights with Dad were too much to handle. Helia moved her family into an apartment in Yorktown, hoping it would be temporary, that they could work it out and bring the family back together. But the separation turned permanent, and the child support withered away. The apartment, her last-minute effort to keep the family in a home, became too expensive to keep.
So, the troupe moved into a series of one-week hotels.
Quiet and shell-shocked, the family was admitted into Menchville House in May. They can stay there for 18 months, and only five months into the stay, Heila isn't sure when her family will leave. She has a job at a local crafts store, which she gets to through a series of bus pickups and cab rides, but it won't pay the bills by itself.
True, the youngest, bops around with her mother, teasing her 13-year-old brother, arguing about homework and running to get snacks for her backpack at night. It's not home, but it's not too bad, she shrugs. She misses her dad.
Eden, 13, and Harmony, 11, resemble their mother in their lanky physique, shy eyes and whisper of a voice. They're not too interested in sharing their feelings with anyone right now.
On a normal night, Heila sits with her kids around a table in the group kitchen eating dinner with her family, including her extended Menchville sisters. The kids take spots around the house, maybe outside to play basketball, maybe in the children's library to read a book, and Heila heads to the adult computer lab to try to connect with someone, anyone, who might be willing to share a ride with her to work.
"This has really helped stabilize our situation," she says, as she scans an Internet listing of ride-sharing websites. "Before we came here, I was such a bundle of emotions that just ran rampant. Now, my focus can be on the job search and training, and not all about where my family was going to sleep."
A SAFE PLACE
Everyone who walks through the front door of Menchville House is greeted by a small stone sign, etched with the words, "Peace to all who enter here."
It's a one-sentence summation of Carol Masser's dream for the transitional home, which she founded 10 years ago with friends Phyllis Walker and Barbara Biery Dillard. The phrase "From hurt to hope," became their official motto.
The house was to be a place where women could stay, with their children, for a period of time that would allow them to finish additional schooling and re-enter society in a position to fend for themselves.
During their stay, the women are required to attend weekly workshops on everything from household budgeting to law. They work on paying off debts and improving their credit. They get help re-establishing their rights after a felony conviction, and they work to find a new home, and a new crowd, after beating a
In the beginning, Carol found a temporary home for the foundation in a small white building on Warwick Boulevard. The adjacent apartment complex, a familiar spot for police, who blazed into the parking lot nearly every day breaking up drug trade-offs and violent encounters, later became Menchville House.
An asbestos cleanup, massive restoration project and nights spent on bended knee led to the transformation from broken apartment building to spotless home.
"Oh, we were so naive," Carol remembers. "We thought we could have an idea, buy a house, fill out some paperwork, and, boom, have a home for women and children. Before the renovation, pot smoke from the drug dealers out back was so thick you couldn't walk outside without getting a contact high."
Carol, now 77, works on the 10th anniversary dinner plans in between doctor's appointments trying to resolve her
She just cannot let herself take a day off, when she knows she is part of providing a safe haven.
"I will never forget our first baby," she says. "She was so beautiful - her mother put pink bows in her hair - and we all fought over who got to hold her next."
It was fun to have children around the house for Christmastime, they all agreed. It really felt like a family in the presence of a sunny baby's coo and wobbly waddle.
When the mother-daughter pair moved out, Carol worried.
"And I will never forgive that mother for taking her back into that situation," Carol continues, a tear dripping off of her chin. "That man killed that little girl. She was safe here.