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Chronic homeless beat odds with help

They were the ones few expected to make it: the mentally ill, drug-addicted, chronic homeless.

There were the two meth users outreach workers found living in a Boulder Highway homeless encampment.

The disabled single father struggling to keep his young daughter in school and support his own drug habit while they had no place to sleep.

The depressed mother who lost custody of her baby and the car the young family lived in, she getting high every day to cope.

Despite the odds against them, they are living in recovery. And indoors.

Those who help the valley’s homeless held a luncheon on Thursday to celebrate nearly 50 formerly homeless people who have succeeded in getting clean and off the streets in the past few years since a group of local nonprofit organizations joined forces to combat chronic homelessness.

Service providers typically define chronic homelessness as experiencing several bouts of homelessness over a few years or being homeless for a year or more.

Advocates for the homeless say they’ve been told in the past that attempting to work with those who fit the chronic category is a waste of time.

But “people who were deemed chronically homeless, they can get better,” said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program. “It’s about people who decide to make changes.”

The pioneering coalition of nonprofits formed in 2005 with the goal of getting some of the valley’s most entrenched homeless off the streets for good. The coalition was dubbed OUTREACH, for Organizations United to Reach, Educate and Assist Chronic Homeless. It includes Straight from the Streets, HELP of Southern Nevada, Family Promise and other organizations.

The Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s Committee on Homelessness agreed to give the group about $4 million in initial state funds toward fighting homelessness.

Since then, OUTREACH has moved hundreds of people into housing and completed dozens of interventions at homeless camps across the valley. The number of homeless deaths also has fallen each year since, which some in the homeless services world credit to OUTREACH work.

The former homeless who were recognized Thursday represented some of the tougher cases OUTREACH workers have encountered.

“I would be locked up for selling weed or stealing cars” if it weren’t for the program, said 27-year-old Brad Carr, who was homeless off and on for the past decade.

Carr and his girlfriend, 30-year-old Nishah Martin, were homeless together for nearly three years. They initially lived in a car, then took to the streets, all the time hustling for money to buy drugs.

Along the way, Martin lost custody of her son, now 4 years old.

“It wasn’t even life,” she said Thursday afternoon while sitting in the living room of the two-bedroom apartment she now shares with Carr and the boy. “It was hell. The weed made it easier to deal with. I didn’t feel anything, because I was smoking weed.”

The couple decided to get straight and change their lives because Martin desperately wanted to get her son back.

“I told him (Carr), ‘It’s either the weed or me,'” Martin said. “He chose me.”

OUTREACH initially moved the couple into a weekly rental motel downtown. The pair began going to counseling and undergoing random drug tests.

They were allowed to see Martin’s son on the weekends. Then for a week at a time. Now, Martin has custody of the boy, who was napping during her interview.

The family now lives in an apartment near Cambridge Street and Desert Inn Road. Martin and Carr have been drug-free for a year.

“It’s like a world apart,” Martin said. “We’ve come so far. It’s not even us anymore. It’s overwhelming.”

But it hasn’t been easy.

“We’ve had quite a few fights,” Martin said. “There’s been tears and sweat.”

Carr enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program and is looking for a full-time job. He wants to be a mechanic and have his own shop someday.

Martin thinks about eventually going to college. She has reconciled with another son, a 6-year-old who lives with his maternal grandparents.

None of it would have been possible, Carr and Martin say, without the kind of intensive help OUTREACH provided.

“When I first became homeless on the streets of Nevada, my God,” Martin said. “It felt so cold out here. But, with this program, I saw that there’s people who really care.”

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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