Family savors life off Las Vegas streets

It’s been just over a month since the McGrath family moved out of a dusty tent in the homeless corridor, but in some ways it feels like a lifetime.

"I’ve been enjoying hanging out, watching TV," Michael McGrath, 17, said while snacking on potato chips in the family’s new apartment near the Strip. "It’s a lot better than a tent."

Homeless outreach workers from HELP of Southern Nevada moved the Rancho High School senior and his parents into the one-bedroom apartment after the family’s plight was detailed in the Review-Journal. The three had been homeless about a year, the last two weeks of which were spent in an encampment on Owens Avenue near Interstate 15.

A lot has changed since then. For one thing, the McGraths now are passing their drug tests. Mark, 52, and Jennifer, 42, initially tested positive for methamphetamine. Michael admitted smoking marijuana not long before the family was housed.

Michael now happily volunteers for testing.

"I’m glad I can pass," he said.

His parents, too, are staying clean so far.

"I’m not going to say it’s not hard," Jennifer said. "There have been times I really wanted to" use drugs.

They still are adjusting to intensive case management through Straight from the Streets, a decades-old nonprofit that works hand in hand with HELP to get chronic homeless people off the streets for good. Caseworkers stop in to check on the family. Mark and Jennifer are expected to regularly attend outpatient drug treatment classes, along with individual counseling sessions.

"They’re always going to meetings. I’m always going to school," Michael said.

What hasn’t changed is the affection that kept them together. They didn’t go to a shelter earlier, they said, because they may have had to separate.

"We really do love him to death," Mark said while ruffling Michael’s hair.

"I love you guys, too," Michael said. "Even though you’re embarrassing sometimes."

As nice as it is to have a real roof over their heads, the family’s new living situation brings its own challenges. Michael’s commute to and from school each day, via city bus, takes more than an hour each way. Jennifer, meanwhile, is terrified that everything could be taken away in an instant.

"I don’t want someone to say, ‘Thirty days and you gotta get out,’ " she said.

The program doesn’t follow a strict timeline. Sometimes it takes years for participants to become fully independent and leave the program. Others decide it isn’t for them and drop out.

"It’s a tough road back," said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of Straight from the Streets. "For people who have gone so long in survival mode, just being in a structured program is a lot to take on."

For Mark, an Air Force veteran who previously worked in construction, it’s hard to accept caseworkers’ instructions not to seek employment right away so he can focus on his sobriety.

"It was hard not taking jobs" that were offered after the family’s story appeared in the newspaper, he said. "It’s hard having people say to her (Jennifer) that I should get a job."

This also frustrates Jennifer, but she understands the reasoning.

"They want us to recover and focus on building a sturdy foundation so we can stand on it," she said. "They’re there to help us."

Michael, too, initially wanted to get a job. Caseworkers advised him to slow down and concentrate on school. He is on track to graduate in June, just a couple weeks after his 18th birthday.

Caseworkers plan to move the family to a more permanent location next month, a nearby two-bedroom apartment.

It will be the first time Michael has had his own room in about a decade. It’s a long way from the two-man tent he shared with his parents.

"I’m really looking forward to it," he said.

The encampment, once inhabited by scores of homeless people, is now empty. Police, social service workers and volunteers staged a massive intervention in the area last month, a coordinated effort to clean it up and steer people into services.

Some, like the McGraths, accepted help. Others simply moved along.

The McGraths sometimes run into their former neighbors on the bus.

"A couple joined the program. Others sleep here and there," Jennifer said.

Glancing out a window toward stormy skies, she said the best part of her new life is, "on days like this, I’m not sleeping in it."

For Mark, it is "having the rent paid so we can get our lives in order. It is so tough if you gotta do it on your own."

The family isn’t sure what the future holds, but is OK with that.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen in six months," Jennifer said. "I have made some bad choices, but I’m sure God has a plan for me."

After graduation, Michael plans to get a job and hopes to attend college or a vocational program. He also would like to have his own place.

"What comes next, I don’t know."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com.

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