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An advocate for the homeless in Virginia Beach completes two decades with the city, but the work continues

Cheryl Molinet hugs Bernie Mustin on June 29, during a goodbye party in her honor at Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Virginia Beach. Molinet is retiring after 20 years as a homeless outreach worker for the city. Mustin is one of many Molinet has helped transition off of the street and into housing. “You know I love you,” Molinet said as she embraced him. [Vicki Cronis-Nohe/For The Princess Anne Independent News]

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

OCEANFRONT — Vince Dozier used to run when things went wrong, leave his Back Bay home and head into the woods. He loved someone, but she loved drugs. Once she told him, I’m going to do this until I die. It was true. When she was gone, he ran.

Cheryl Molinet helped him stop running. They knew each other before he had his loss. Afterwards, she helped him find resources, including to help him with his grief. 

“She stood by me, day and night, through that,” Dozier said, who now helps others find support. “Cheryl would help me like a mother who knew a child was hurting.”

Dozier spoke about Molinet on Friday, June 29, while he manned a grill, cooking burgers for Molinet’s goodbye party at Star of the Sea Catholic Church. She has retired from her work with the city.

“I’m one of Cheryl’s people,” he said.

For two decades, Molinet has helped others on behalf of the city Human Services Department. Over the past 18 years, she led the city’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness outreach program, known as PATH. It helps people who are or may become homeless.

Among those who celebrated her career was Master Police Officer Allen Perry, who has known her 15 years. He recalled someone who fled to the street to escape abuse. “Do you remember that Navy wife?” Perry asked.

“Yeah,” Molinet said.

Within hours of police encountering the woman, Molinet had found shelter for her.

“We never saw her on the street again,” Perry said. “That’s why we love her.”

“It molded me,” Molinet said of such work. “It gave me an insight into what being a person is about. … I’m going to miss the people. They’re the ones who made me who I am.”

Music played. Molinet briefly danced along side April Warner, who works with city human services. They used to work out of the same office. And sometimes dance.

“Not necessarily the last dance,” Warner said.

Bernie Mustin was there, too. He now lives at the Oceanfront, but he used to be on the street. He said they met 16 or 17 years ago.

“It seems like a million years ago now,” Mustin said.

He said he was homeless in the London Bridge area. Molinet would come to where the people were.

“Cheryl looked out for all of us,” he said. “She’d come though the woods, the mud, the blood and the beer. … And she got a few of us off the street. Never judged any of us. Never.”

He sometimes struggled on his own path.

“She never gives up,” Mustin said. “Never gives up on anyone. There were even times I kind of ran from her.”

She would find him. Come on, Bernie. We’re going to the doctor today.

“When you’re living that kind of life, you’re afraid of the outside, kind of,” he said. “She has a way, at least to me, to get to do things that maybe I don’t want to do but they’re good for me. … I don’t know if I can ever say thanks enough.”

Mustin’s roommate, Jeff Overman, met Molinet about six years ago. He was living in a pup tent. He had his ups and downs.

“She never throws in the towel on anybody,” Overman said. “She’s just one of the most caring, understanding, loving people. A lot of us are not so lovable all the time, coming off the streets.”

Overman said one of the things people who are in the streets need is that ear, just someone to listen and speak with them, to treat them like human beings. “That’s where it starts.”

“Just a little consideration,” Mustin said.

“Plus you feel like you matter to someone,” Overton said.

Someone asked Molinet to make some remarks, but she did not have a speech. “It’s a journey and a process,” Molinet said moments later. “It’s who is with you along the way.”

Mustin and Molinet hugged near a statue of St. Francis, his arms extended above gifts and flowers for Molinet at the end of her city service.  “Thank you, Cheryl,” Mustin said.

Cheryl Molinet reflects on the work she has done as a homeless outreach worker in Virginia Beach, during a retirement gathering for her at Star of the Sea Catholic Church at the Oceanfront on Friday, June 29. [Vicki Cronis-Nohe/For The Princess Anne Independent News]

She hails from Indiana, came here in the 1970s, as so many do, with the Navy. After nine years and a medical discharge, she headed home, started college, then returned and finished her psychology degree. She applied for a part-time job helping people with mental health and substance abuse issues, then went fulltime, and a supervisor put her in charge of PATH. She did not want to work with homeless people back then.

“It wasn’t long before I learned this was my calling,” Molinet said. “Working with people who needed someone to listen, not necessarily tell them what to do.”

It was real outreach, finding and helping people, connecting them with mental health and substance abuse services, learning their many other needs. She learned the system – and how to connect people to it.

She worked closely with the late Beryl Alexander of Community Alternatives Management Group to establish the city’s first Homeless Connect, modeled after one in Norfolk. The first event was at Star of the Sea. People could sleep, eat, find resources, get medical checks, even haircuts.

She worked with folks such as James Cook, then an HIV outreach worker, going out to find people. “We have been through every piece of woods in Virginia Beach,” she said.

Some made it. Others didn’t.

“I can see the faces of all the people that I knew who passed away, but I can’t remember how many. There were so many.”

She mentioned a poem by Ken Kraybill, who has worked with the homeless, called “This Work.” In part, it says the work of reaching out “breaks me apart emotionally/and breaks me open spiritually/leaves me wounded/and heals me.” 

The personal touch of the work seemed to change over time. Molinet misses that.

“Starting out for me, it was just getting people to the point that they would want to go into services,” she said. “Over the years, it has evolved to the point that it’s data driven.”

In retirement, she will volunteer with Star of the Sea Social Outreach. 

The kind of work she initially did not want to do in her early days with the city will continue in this way.

“It ended up being a job that hit me to the core,” Molinet said. “It’s became the core of my existence because it’s all about living life and being nonjudgmental – accepting someone right where they’re at. Because I want to be accepted where I’m at.”

Cheryl Molinet hugs Bernie Mustin on June 29, during a goodbye party in her honor at Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Virginia Beach. [Vicki Cronis-Nohe/For The Princess Anne Independent News]

Presents are left for Molinet by a statue of St. Francis, during her retirement party at Star of the Sea Catholic Church on June 29, in Virginia Beach. Molinet will continue to volunteer here, working with the homeless community and those who serve them. [Vicki Cronis-Nohe/For The Princess Anne Independent News]


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The Independent News

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