16-month-old Jax is sitting up proudly in the community vegetable garden. He has a big smile on his face because even though he hasn’t quite mastered walking, he’s learned to crawl around quickly in this big open space. A few steps away his dad, James, keeps a watchful eye while he picks some vegetables to serve at a barbecue he’s having later with some of his neighbors, all fellow veterans.
This is a day in the life of St. Michael’s Haven. This Catholic Housing Community provides formerly homeless veterans and their families, like James and his wife Jillian, a healing space where they can strengthen their family, live in community, and dream about the future. Families live in permanent apartments where they can access the social, emotional, and vocational support they need to succeed in life outside the military. For James, “Having a stable life is a miracle.”
Just over a year ago, life was less certain. After experiencing some medical trouble, the former signal intelligence analyst was forced to take a full medical retirement from the Air Force. With no work and nowhere to stay, they moved to his father’s property, 90 minutes from the nearest grocery store. His father lives with Alzheimer’s, so Jillian helped take care of him. They lived in a shed without a kitchen or running water. They felt depressed, and their marriage was straining.
Then Jax was born. “It was clear [the living arrangement] wasn’t going to be able to keep it together for us,” said James. Jillian couldn’t imagine raising her son there, where he couldn’t even crawl on the splintered floor. They started asking around, and eventually found the Blue Mountain Action Council, which referred them to St. Michael’s. Less than 2 months after they filled an application, they moved in.
“We had running water, electricity, everything we needed for a great life for our son,” said Jillian. The apartment has given Jax new freedom to explore, and he’s started learning to walk on the floor in his own room.
A big part of their life at St. Michael’s Haven is the programming and services available to them. The vegetable garden has given James a stress-free place to enjoy his free time, and Jillian attends AA meetings that help her feel healthy. As Jillian and James find the support each needs, their marriage is strengthening.
“If we hadn’t found this place…we would no longer be together,” Jillian said. “We’re just so grateful that we had the chance to repair all the damage that was done.”
Living with veterans who share their experience of homelessness, they have made many friends. Now, neighbors stop by their apartment to share meals and help take care of Jax. The community they have found at St. Michael’s has helped them move on from the stress of homelessness and the trauma of exiting military life.
“We love it here,” said James, and the Woods are already looking to the future. Now that colleges are close by, Jillian is planning to go back to school for a degree in the medical field. She is also expecting their second child, but has none of the apprehension surrounding Jax’s first home.
“As a family, we’re just excited to keep growing.”