As soon as she moved into her downtown Las Vegas apartment in mid-December, Joan Williams put up her Christmas tree.
Then she neatly hung four stockings on the wall and festooned the window with blinking, colored Dollar Store lights. The red front door added a fitting touch.
The biggest thing was left for last: getting her kids back.
The boys, 6-year-old Chase and 2-year-old Johnny, had spent the past 18 months in the custody of Clark County Child Protective Services after they climbed out a bedroom window and ran naked across the street toward a nearby playground. Williams, 37, was taken into custody after officers found meth inside the home.
“I lost everything when the kids were taken,” she said. “I lost my house, animals, everything was gone. All I knew was that I needed help.”
Williams went through addiction treatment and spent months living in a sober home and working with CPS trying to get her children back. But she was spinning her wheels until HopeLink of Southern Nevada secured her apartment by tapping into a new stream of Clark County funding.
The goal of the HopeLink program is to provide housing and a path to self-sufficiency for 60 families, with one-third of the cases being families in the CPS system that are ready to reunite with their children and the rest being homeless families with children.
For the county, the more than $6.1 million in marijuana business licensing fees approved in June for HopeLink and two other nonprofits is part of its strategy to trim a housing waiting list that stands at about 200 families.
The money has added 594 more units across the valley available for struggling families, more than double the number of beds previously available. The new money gives the nonprofits more flexibility than the federal grants previously used to provide such housing, which often came with multiple restrictions.
Since starting its program on Aug. 29, HopeLink has housed 35 families.
HopeLink’s Director of Housing Services, Dani Sparks, said the nonprofit is working to get four more families into units before Christmas.
“I call it ‘Home for the Holidays,’” she said. “This new money gives us a chance to help even more families that are sitting in shelters.”
Williams and her older son, Chase, made a countdown calendar to mark off the days until he would be reunited with his mom and brother.
It happened 11 days before Christmas. Little Johnny danced by the door at the Child Haven shelter when he saw Chase, his mom and dad, Dustin Huebner, walking toward him.
The boys tumbled into the new apartment that Saturday night, and the first thing they wanted to was swim in the pool.
“No,” Williams said with a smile. “But you can go in to the tub, get naked, have fun.”
That night, the boys’ dad stayed for a few slices of pizza while the “water moggers” splashed in the newly renovated bathtub.
“I want to put this in the tub,” Chase squeaked as he lifted a soapy black crate into the water. “I want bubbles.”
“Chase, I want a kiss,” his younger brother said, clutching a toy car in his left hand.
Over the course of his short life, Johnny had only been in Williams’ custody for eight months.
He was born in January 2016 at 28 weeks, weighing only 1 pound, 15 ounces. He had spent the next six months in the hospital before he came home. Because of his parents’ struggles with addiction, he had been temporarily removed from their home twice before CPS stepped in and took custody.
Williams says she used crystal meth for 15 years but is now 10 months’ clean.
Williams quit using meth while she was pregnant in 2017 but relapsed after she gave birth to her daughter. She then gave the baby up for adoption by her cousin, but said the sight of the two driving off on their way to Utah was almost too painful to bear.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I knew I couldn’t handle it, emotionally, mentally and physically,” she said. “I tried to numb the pain and not face the reality of it.”
For the time being, the $775 rent for the one-bedroom unit is being picked up entirely by HopeLink, but the goal is to provide case management and wraparound services so that Williams can start to pay 30 percent of the rent and eventually take over the lease.
In the past 18 months, Williams said she has missed major milestones in her boys’ life.
Both were potty trained without her, Chase succeeded in speech therapy, and the boys were forced to be in separate foster homes.
“These kids went through way more than I ever went through,” she said. “It was unbearable to know that I let them down again.”
Before bed, each boy took their allergy medication. Chase took his ADHD medication. Johnny, who has a chronic lung disorder, used his nebulizer.
“Wear your cool guy mask,” his dad told him as the youngest boy strapped the mask over his head and inhaled the vapor medication. His older brother, clad in dinosaur pajama pants, counted the pennies in his Tootsie Roll bank.
Their dad, Huebner, is 41 days sober. He said he hopes to regain full custody of the boys in the new year.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “But we put ourselves in this predicament.”
In the bedroom that night after Huebner left, Williams stood next to the boys’ bunk beds, just feet away from her queen-sized mattress. An Alcoholic Anonymous blue book sat on the wooden dresser.
She marveled how much her life had change in the two weeks since she moved in.
“Now, I’m living again,” she said. “Before, it was just an existence.”