Mountainlands works to prevent homelessness in Park City
One misfortune led to another for Annie, who is now a grateful tenant in a transitional housing apartment provided by Mountainlands Community Housing Trust (MCHT). If not for the program, Annie (who asked that we not use her real name) and her teenage daughter would likely be homeless.
Annie served in the Gulf War and, shortly after returning home to the East Coast, was involved in a serious car accident. Afterwards, she says, she experienced chronic confusion and memory loss that rendered her incapable of keeping her job as a nurse’s assistant.
While it is unclear whether her disabilities were caused by the wreck or by chemicals she may have been exposed to during the war, Annie sees the accident as the first in a series of cascading problems that eventually led her and her daughter into a desperate situation..
"We were living in a fleabag hotel in Heber and we had a series of junkers. I was living in Heber but working in Park City. One night it was snowing and I couldn’t get home and I had to ask the woman on the night shift if I could sleep in her car," she explained.
Annie’s story isn’t that different from those told by others in the program who have experienced a variety of personal and financial crises making it impossible to keep their homes.
MCHT Executive Director Scott Loomis explains that two-thirds of those who apply for transitional housing are women trying to leave abusive relationships. The local domestic violence shelter, Peace House, can only house them for 30 days. After that, Loomis says, the women and their children have few options beyond returning to their abusers.
In addition to Peace House, MCHT gets referrals from the Park City Christian Center and Valley Mental Health. Others show up at the door after being evicted. Loomis admits he is surprised how many are on the waiting list.
The trust, perhaps best known for its work in matching seasonal employees with affordable housing each winter, added the transitional housing program to its list of services in 2003.
"We were already running a housing resource center and we had a relationship with the Peace House, so from those contacts we knew there certainly was a need. We also knew of people camping in the streets including a mother of two. She was divorced, had no job, couldn’t pay her rent, was evicted ," Loomis explained.
Through a joint effort with Wasatch and Utah counties, the Park City-based MCHT was able to land a $72,000 grant through the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency’s Continuum of Care program. The local group kicked in an additional $9,000 and went hunting for properties.
With the initial grant, MCHT was able to secure leases on five units, all located within the Park City School District. According to Loomis, MCHT pays the rent and screens the tenants. He said local landlords have been very supportive.
And the tenants are not getting a free ride.
The heads of household in the transitional housing units pay 10 percent of their income to MCHT. The money is held for them so that when they are ready to leave they have enough saved to pay for security deposits and first month’s rent on a place of their own.
They also meet weekly with a case worker to set goals and develop skills needed to re-enter the job market.
From 2003 to 2006 the demand for transitional housing steadily outpaced the supply and in 2007 MCHT was able to secure a second grant from HUD and some additional money from United Way, allowing the group to add another four units to its inventory. (Two of the four are in Wasatch County.) All nine units are occupied and the waiting list continues to grow.
For Loomis, one case stands out and makes the hard work of managing the program worthwhile. It involved a woman who had been in an abusive relationship. "She had two to three teeth in her mouth. Her kids had disowned her. She had no support whatsoever. She was in the program for one year and after, when she turned 50, she brought us baked goods. She was wearing a pair of red shoes that she said ‘symbolize her new life.’
"When it’s personal like that, it means something. It’s not just statistics, not just a program. It really changes people’s lives," he said.
Loomis gives a lot of the credit for the program’s success to MCHT case worker Cassie Martinez. She is the one who meets with the tenants to keep them on pace with their goals and she is the one who hears from the landlords when there is a problem.
Martinez said that Annie’s progress and the motivation she sees among her other charges inspires her. One client, she said, struggles with a bipolar disorder. "I have seen her try so hard. I am really proud of her," she said.
Martinez said that the economy has definitely caused the number of people on the brink of homelessness to increase. Some of the people she considers to be technically homeless are living in doubled-up situations, i.e. two families in a unit, and it can be difficult to turn them away when they show up at the MCHT office. "There are days when we get three or four calls," she said.
If all goes according to plan, one unit could open up in the near future. Annie has a job and her daughter is thriving in the local school system. With Martinez’ help she also hopes to obtain some VA benefits.
"I am relieved, I am optimistic, like there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Annie whose top three goals are to "repair my credit, keep my car and see my daughter through college."
According to MCHT’s website, 62 families have received transitional housing assistance. Last year 80 percent of those in the program found full-time employment and moved into other affordable housing units.
Currently 21 people are living in MCHT’s nine transitional housing units and, according to Loomis, there are 30 households on the waiting list.
For more information about Mountainlands Community Housing Trust log on to http://www.housinghelp.org
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