Homeless family gets help

Michael McGrath poked his head out of his family’s tent in the homeless corridor and shivered in the pre-dawn cold.

He lit a cigarette and tried to make sense of the last 24 hours.

“Some guy handed us cash,” the 17-year-old said early Wednesday. “A guy bought us dinner. All these people were out here, looking for me.”

Michael and his parents were overwhelmed by the response after their plight was detailed in Tuesday’s Review-Journal.

One of Michael’s teachers from Rancho High School visited their homeless encampment in tears. Strangers stopped by with blankets, pillows, clothing and gift cards for fast food and groceries.

“I started crying,” said Michael’s mom, Jennifer McGrath, still tucked inside the family’s dusty tent with Mark McGrath, Michael’s dad. “I freaked.”

And more help was about to arrive.

Two of the valley’s most seasoned outreach workers, dispatched to the corridor as part of a scheduled intervention in the area, were searching for the McGraths.

“Is that them?” asked Crystal Williams, a case manager from HELP of Southern Nevada, as she approached the tent.

Soon she and Ed Vega, a treatment coordinator for HELP, were helping the family pack up their belongings.

By the end of the day, the McGraths had a small apartment near the Strip to call their own.

But it wasn’t exactly a happy ending. At best, it was the happy beginning of what could be a very long journey.

“They wouldn’t be in this mess if they were perfect,” Vega said at HELP’s offices on east Flamingo Road. “They need a lot of work.”

Each of the McGraths had just tested positive for drugs. Nobody was surprised.

“I knew I’d come up dirty,” Michael said. “I smoked weed on New Year’s Eve.”

His parents had a more serious problem. Jennifer, 42, and Mark, 52, last used methamphetamine two days ago.

The drug tests didn’t disqualify them from receiving services from HELP. It just told case managers what kind of help they need.

In the next several days, the McGraths will be enrolled in outpatient drug treatment programs. Vega or another HELP staffer frequently will stop by the family’s new apartment, unannounced and ask them to pee in a cup.

This news didn’t bother Michael, who said he is now clean.

Jennifer, too, vowed to toe the line.

“I’m done,” she said. “I am not messing this up. God put a door right here, and I’m walking through it.”

But both are a little worried about Mark, who they think will have an especially hard time giving up alcohol.

“He doesn’t seem to care anymore,” Michael said later as Vega drove him to school. “He’s happy being out there” in the homeless encampment.

Mark, characteristically quiet, nodded vigorously when asked whether he thought he could handle not using.

Otherwise, he could lose his family.

“If they don’t comply, I’m at least going to make sure I’m OK,” Michael said of his parents.

Jennifer asked whether she could stay in the program without her husband if he doesn’t follow the rules.

“You can’t be doing this,” she said to him. “I love you to pieces, but I need to make this work. I’m getting old, I’m getting tired, and I’m getting off this roller coaster.”

Caseworkers worked feverishly to cobble together funding from different sources to rent the family an apartment. It took hours, but they came up with $699 for a small, furnished one-bedroom on Harmon Avenue west of Paradise Road.

Williams, 59, gathered donated linens and dishes and bought plenty of food to fill the family’s new cupboards.

“The only thing we don’t give them is money,” Vega said.

Intensive case management of the family will start almost immediately. Staffers from the decades-old Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program, which works hand-in-hand with HELP, will be in charge.

The first order of business is to finish assessing the McGraths, to determine their medical and mental health and other needs. Next is to stabilize the family, getting them used to cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and living indoors. After about a year of homelessness, it will be an adjustment.

HELP’s program is meant to be long-term, to provide ample opportunity for homeless people struggling with multiple issues to succeed.

“The goal is to eventually get them stable enough to work,” Vega said.

Mark teared up for the second time Wednesday when he saw the family’s new place. The first time was earlier in the day, when Williams told him Michael is a “remarkable young man.”

“I only cry when I’m happy,” he said.

Jennifer said she couldn’t express her gratitude enough for everything the family has received.

“I’m going to show my ‘thank you’ by graduating from this program,” she said.

After school, Michael showered and quickly made himself comfortable on the family’s couch, where he devoured an overflowing bowl of chocolate kids’ cereal.

He was still trying to make sense of everything.

“I’m very overwhelmed,” he said. “I was so happy to take a shower. I guess I’m a normal guy now.”

Michael had already mapped out his new bus route to school. He also learned Wednesday he had passed his final high school proficiency exam.

He was happy he no longer would have to do homework by streetlight.

“I don’t have any homework tonight,” he said. “The first night I don’t have homework I actually have somewhere to do it.”

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@review

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