Mary: More Than a Home

A child of the Brooklyn projects, my early years were filled with loneliness and hardship. My mother was an addict and I never really knew my father. We were constantly on the move, so I could never make any lasting friendships. I received no love or support and was surrounded by unhappiness.    

When I was 19, I met the man of my dreams. He promised me a new life filled with love, money, and power. But he turned out to be a drug dealer and introduced me to the world of crack-cocaine, heroin, and other drugs.  These drugs allowed me to forget my past — and were the start of a life-long struggle with addiction.

It was a new and exciting world but soon I was back to living an unstable, transient life as we were constantly on the run looking for our next great high. I became pregnant.  But the joy of giving birth to my first son, Terrance, quickly gave way to shock and grief as I learned my baby was HIV+. I then realized that I, too, was HIV+.  

I begged for my son to live and vowed to change. There was no way I was going to raise my child, in the little time he had, the same way I was raised.  

I checked myself into a detox center and my social worker made an appointment for me to meet with New Jersey AIDS Services’ (NJAS). My case workers at NJAS took me to the Eric Johnson House (EJH), a facility that provided housing and support for people like me, HIV+ and homeless. I was so ready to take control of my life. I remember walking down the long driveway of the Eric Johnson House with all my stuff in a big green garbage bag over my shoulder, shouting ‘I’m here!’ as I walked in the front door.

I had finally found a home. Relying on my own courage and the support of NJAS, I began the long journey of rebuilding myself and coming to terms with my tumultuous past. I participated in individual counseling, substance use groups and began saving money for an apartment of my own. 

My life started turning around. I regained custody of Terrance. I fell in love with a man I met at EJH.  We got married, I got pregnant, and I gave birth to my second son. Because of advances in HIV medical care, my new baby was HIV negative. I named him Eric after my first real home, the Eric Johnson House.     

But soon after my family moved out of EJH and into our apartment, my mother suddenly passed away. I was devastated and didn’t know how to deal with the loss and pain. I relapsed, numbing myself with drugs and plunging into the darkest moments of my life.  I spent all my savings on heroin and then stole my son’s Christmas presents and husband’s car.  

I showed up on the doorstep of NJAS one day, scared and in desperate need of care. They quickly got me into substance use counseling and I soon regained sobriety.    

Twenty-four years later, I remain sober. I lost my first son, Terrance, but worked through the pain without relapsing into drugs. I owe my sobriety and life to NJAS and the Eric Johnson House. They walked alongside me with dedication, compassion, and empathy. NJAS gave me the stability to keep going and no staff member ever closed the door on me. It’s because of NJAS that I have my forever home. It’s because of NJAS that I will never be cold again. It’s because of NJAS that I will never be hungry again. If it wasn’t for everyone at NJAS, I don’t know where my life would be, but I know I wouldn’t be here today.

No Eric Johnson House or NJAS staff member ever shut the door on me