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Ex-cons have tough time finding a home

PROVO — The cigarette smoke is so thick it doesn't just waft out of Room 112, it hits visitors like a brick wall.

Adult Probation and Parole officers Kurtis Robertson and Ben Lail wait for the air to clear only slightly before stepping into the motel room at Executive Inn and Suites, 250 S. University Ave., in Provo.

On this recent night, the room is registered to a woman named Anna, but there are four people on two sagging mattresses, including Anna's husband who is passed out on his stomach. He'd been drinking since the morning and another beer is still on the dresser, half full.

Anna has only been at the Executive Inn and Suites about a month — but it's a month too long. Anna and her husband lived in Colorado until they became homeless. They came to Utah hoping to stay with friends and build a stable life.

The officers know Anna's story too well. She's one of dozens of people in Provo who live in less-than-ideal situations — whether it's a dirty motel room at $65 a night, surrounded by drugs, alcohol and illegal activities, or on the couches of willing friends. She's sleeping on a bed, not a park bench, thus dispelling the "homeless" image, but 30-year-old Anna is the first to tell you she doesn't really have a home.

And Robertson and Lail both know that without a home, Anna and her peers, fellow ex-cons, have a very small chance of breaking the cycle of poverty, drinking and drugs.

Sitting on one of the limp mattresses with the smell of body odor and smoke still strong, Anna says her motivation for change is her family.

"I'm trying to get my son back," she says. He's almost 8 months old.

When Anna and her husband became homeless, they had to put their son in state custody.

The Deseret Morning News is not using Anna's last name to avoid influencing her interactions with the Division of Child and Family Services.

Anna desperately wants an apartment, but with felonies on her record, most recently shoplifting, it's unlikely she'll ever win the trust of a landlord. So she scrounges up what money she can and accepts occasional motel vouchers that come from a program for transients overseen and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Every time we get close, (landlords) give us an excuse," she said. "It's ridiculous. I'm to the point I'm about to pull my hair out. I can't live here to here to here. This is costing me too much. (Especially) when I can be paying as much as I pay a week, for an apartment."

Robertson, Anna's probation officer, looks around the small room. Holiday lights hang haphazardly on the wall. Clothes are draped over dressers and chairs. The air is still murky with smoke and Lail tells one of the visiting men to put out his cigarette, then asks him if he's "on paper."

No, the man says he got off probation, or "paper," a year ago and has been doing well ever since.

The other visiting man, drinking alcohol from a plastic cup, is sitting on the bed without sheets, the mattress cover marred by nearly a dozen cigarette burns.

He watches as Robertson and Lail begin shining flashlights around the dresser and behind the bed.

"You guys got anything?" Robertson asks. "Honesty goes a long way with me. What am I going to find, Anna?"

She's been drinking, she says. She fidgets with her fingers as she assures him they just have alcohol, nothing illegal.

Minutes later Lail holds up a metal drug pipe.

Anna and the men insist it must belong to a friend who was just arrested. They were watching his stuff and didn't know it was there.

By this time, Anna's husband is awake. His movements are jerky and his eyes can't seem to focus.

At one point he peels off his shirt and chugs the rest of his beer, spilling it down the sides of his mouth and onto the matted carpet.

He burps then tells Anna to stop talking. He even tries to stand and confront Lail and Robertson, who carry guns and wear bulletproof vests.

"Make sure he doesn't leave," the officers tell Anna, pointing at her inebriated husband as they walk out.

Anna usually has several people staying with her. Sometimes they're probationers or drug users, Robertson said. Most of them are "bouncers," or those without permanent housing, just like her.

The AP&P officers continue their night. Nearing the Food and Care Coalition at 60 N. 300 West, Lail spots Katherine McCory, 48, walking away.

"Where have you been staying?" he asks, and she tells him about Alex, a friend she met at the coalition, who is letting her crash with him. Before, she lived at the City Center, a slightly seedier relative of the Executive Inn.

But at nearly $250 a week, she couldn't afford it. Plus, there were too many drugs, she said. She got caught up in the snare and was arrested in July for aggravated assault and possession of methamphetamine.

She spent four months in jail and got out in November. "It's been cold ever since," she said. "There's nowhere to sleep. Believe me. I did try (sleeping outside) for one night and I almost froze."

People faced with sleeping on the street wind their way to the Deseret Industries building, 1415 N. State St. in Provo, where they talk with the "transient bishops" to get motel vouchers.

The office is set up with 10 bishops, two mentors and 10 clerks who conduct interviews as people come in for help, said Tyler Sperry, who manages the Transient Services, a program of the LDS Church. Some 30 to 40 people come into the office each day, though many of them aren't homeless and don't qualify for help, but are directed elsewhere.

Calvin hasn't asked for help from anyone but his friends. He's been sleeping on friends' couches — a different one each night — for about a month.

"I've always been able to find a place to sleep, especially in this ... weather," the 21-year-old said. "I would die if I slept outside."

With his next two paychecks, Calvin should have enough money to get his own place.

"It (would be) my own area," he said. "I could come home anytime I want and not have to worry about nothing. I would know I have a place to go every single night and not that my friend's gonna freak out and kick me out. (It would be) secure and stable."

But finding housing isn't the only hurdle for people like Calvin who have a criminal past. Since getting out of jail in July for a robbery charge, Calvin has had 16 different jobs. It's hard to keep a job, he says, once an employer finds out about his record.

And without a full-time job he can keep, it's hard to make rent payments, or save enough just to get an apartment.

"I wish they would stop that deposit, first month, last month's rent (stuff) and I'd be in an apartment right now," he said. "I always had money to get me by. Just not enough to finally get me set in a home right now."