The lobby of Eden House, a special kind of apartment building at 14th and N streets NW, is hung with some of the drawings that Cheryl K. Barnes has created. There are flowers and butterflies and abstract swirls of color — bright, geometric designs in magic marker.
It’s hard to believe that someone who has been through so much hardship could produce art so ebullient. But Cheryl never let the flame inside her be extinguished. And with the help of N Street Village, a charity that works with homeless women in the District, that flame has grown.
“Come Jan. 1, I’ll have 26 years of recovery, thanks to N Street Village giving me what I just couldn’t get,” said Cheryl, 67. That includes a one-bedroom apartment at Eden House, a handsome 51-unit apartment building owned by N Street where Cheryl has lived for four years.
The journey that brought Cheryl to N Street Village began in Northeast Washington, where she grew up as an only child in a tragically dysfunctional family. Cheryl’s father beat her mother regularly, and he once cut off all of her mother’s hair as punishment for some perceived infraction.
One day, Cheryl came home from school and saw her mother through a basement window, tied to a chair as her father showered her with blows.
“I just didn’t know how to help, so I ran and knocked on the neighbor’s door for help,” Cheryl said. “ ‘Can you help my Mom?’ I said. Back in those days, people didn’t get in people’s business. She told me, ‘That’s what married couples go through.’ Then she told me, ‘If you think it’s that bad, call the police.’
“I was 10 years old. I didn’t know anything about calling the police.”
Cheryl felt there was no one she could turn to for help. She turned to something else: “I just sort of at the age of 12 learned how to get high,” she said. “That’s how it seeped out.”
She would drink beer before school and smoke pot after, rolling with a crowd that got high in parks around town.
When Cheryl was in her early teens, her father's sister — the self-described "black sheep of the family" who she'd known as Aunt Katie — showed up and explained to Cheryl that she was her biological mother. She had gotten pregnant during a relationship with a soldier and, knowing that her brother and sister-in-law couldn't have children, had given them her new baby, whom they adopted.
“I had two fathers,” Cheryl said. “One was my uncle. I had two mothers. One was my adopted mother.”
When Cheryl was 16, her adopted mother died of breast cancer. Her father decided to move back to the South, where he had grown up. He invited Cheryl to come along, but she relished the prospect of being away from him.
She lived for a while with a classmate and her mother. Sometimes she lived on the streets. Sometimes she lived in shelters, such as the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter run by Mitch Snyder , who died in 1990. Sometimes she found herself "bip-bopping around," crashing in crack houses.
“I always kept a job,” Cheryl said. She worked for a maintenance company, cleaning offices, picking up trash. “I learned how to run a buffer at the Treasury Department,” she said, still proud of that achievement. “An older guy taught me. He was buffing floors and they were so shiny and pretty.”
Cheryl’s addictions and the rough circumstances of her life — from shelter to street and back again — exacted a punishing toll. More than once she attempted suicide, and it was after one incident, when she was in a crisis center at D.C. General Hospital, that she somehow found the willpower to set a different course. A counselor at the crisis center told Cheryl he knew a place he thought could help her. Did she want him to call? Cheryl said yes.
He dialed the phone and Cheryl heard him ask, “Do you have a spot for one more angel?”
“Angel?” Cheryl says. “I started crying.”
At 3 in the morning she arrived at the Luther Place Memorial Church near Thomas Circle, where N Street Village ran a night shelter for homeless women. It was the start of Cheryl’s transformation.
“N Street took a wretch like me and made me someone my moms could be proud of,” she said. “Both of them.”
N Street Village still operates a women’s shelter at Luther Place Memorial Church, and another in Chinatown. They are part of a network of resources that range from access to showers and meals to permanent supportive housing.
Cheryl has become an active participant in the life of N Street Village, welcoming newcomers and advising the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“I adopt wherever I go,” Cheryl said. “You’ve been adopted, too. You’re always welcome here.”
How to help
N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To support its vital work with a tax-deductible donation, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to "N Street Village," and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.