By Gwen Henderson

On the night of August 1, 1997 a chain of events occurred that changed the course of my life. I was in the depths of addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine and knew I couldn’t go on any further. A local Chicago hospital would not admit me because I wasn’t a heroin addict. With nowhere to go, I decided to walk to the beautiful Chicago lakefront and jump in, wanting my life to end. But I was rescued by a man who reeked of alcohol, he jumped in to save me. I was taken to a hospital by police officers, who called the Illinois Department of Human Services to pick me up.
A beautiful spirit, Mrs. Perry picked me up and tried to take me to several shelters, but they were full. As we drove, I told her I was an addict. She drove us to her office on the westside of the city, gave me food and a cot to sleep on. I had no money, home or health insurance.
The following day she took me to the Haymarket Center. After three prior attempts at treatment and detox, I was given another chance.
I believe God sent in special angels to get me through the next moments. The intake coordinator, Ms. Jeanette, got me a detox voucher because I was homeless. Due to how weak I was, the tech on duty helped balance me as I washed away the lice, then settled me in bed. August 3, Ms. Jeanette asked me if I knew what day it was. I did not. Politely she said it was my “dry date”, and it never had to change.
The next few days I was extremely sick, diagnosed with pneumonia, and sent to the hospital. The fear I felt was overwhelming. I was a 42-year old homeless woman — black woman.
I was told Haymarket Center could not hold a bed but recommended I call every day to keep my name on the waiting list. In the meantime, the detox counselor began to research city, county and federal funding sources for homeless women; women over 40; African American indigent women.
After six days in the hospital I returned to Haymarket Center for the 30-day inpatient program. Fortunately, there were city grant monies to fund substance abuse treatment for homeless African American women.
It warrants being noted that prior to my Haymarket stay, I was able to use my husband’s (now ex) insurance. Each time I went to treatment after the first 30-days, my stays were not as long because insurance would not cover it. In 1996, people were only allowed one, 30-day treatment stay a year. After that, it was called rapid recovery. For an addict like me that did nothing but offer a short reprieve. After 20 plus years, my marriage, I was penniless, homeless and addicted, living on the streets.
After 33 days at Haymarket, I was accepted into a housing program for homeless women, and stayed for 18 months. The program was for indigent women and men, not necessarily recovering from addiction. However, approximately 98% of us were in our first year of recovery. Here I was a 42-year-old homeless, crack addict, but I was very grateful to be alive, with a roof over my head.
Being an African American woman posed challenges that were magnified because of my addiction. I kept taking it a day at a time and after a year in the program, I found a job, and slowly began putting my life back together.
I attended 12-step meetings on a regular basis, continued my individual therapy, and learned more about myself, and trauma. At 18-months, I graduated the housing program and secured my first apartment and a better job. Eventually I went back to college, earning two additional degrees (my first degree was earned in 1977).
Facing the challenges of being an addicted/alcoholic homeless African American woman, sobriety was still obtainable; but, I needed so much help.
I’m been blessed with a life I could not have hoped for. God saw fit to grace me with opportunities that led me to Arizona in 2004. I continue to be blessed to work with so many outstanding behavior health professionals to help individuals obtain sobriety, mental health stability while reuniting with their families, and living healthy lifestyles. I came from the streets, hopeless and beaten. My sobriety means more to me as each day passes. I am grateful to be alive and sober and am here to help.

Gwen Henderson is a Business Development Specialist with Buena Vista Health and Recovery Centers. She has worked 21-years in Mental and Behavioral Health; serving individuals impacted with co-occurring and substance use disorders. Gwen has trained and held various positions in the field, as a Substance Abuse Assessor and Counselor; Case Management Supervisor; Business Development Director; and Executive Director. [email protected]