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REAP offers home, help to ex-inmates

Thomas McGowan, shown working in Orem as a dishwasher, received help readjusting to life after prison as part of a new program at the Utah County Jail.
Thomas McGowan, shown working in Orem as a dishwasher, received help readjusting to life after prison as part of a new program at the Utah County Jail.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

OREM — At last, Thomas McGowan had his life together.

No longer bouncing in and out of jail or living on the streets, he had an apartment and was holding down a steady job. His children were coming over for visits and he was even making dinner for his grandson.

Everything was going well.

And that's why, he says, it went wrong.

McGowan, one of the first participants in a new housing assistance program for former Utah County Jail inmates — the Re-Entry Assistance Program (REAP) — just didn't know how to handle all the opportunities, success and pressures of being responsible.

So he turned back to drugs.

He relapsed the day after Thanksgiving and lost his job that next week when he didn't show up to work.

"When I got out of jail and entered (REAP), I was like this locomotive," he said. "I'm going to get this job, make up for lost time, do this and this and this and this."

He pauses and takes a breath. "I can't be that rabbit. I gotta be the tortoise."

McGowan's slip is not uncommon. And it's not the end of his recovery process or a statement on whether the program can be successful, says Richard Green, a chaplain who works with REAP participants at the Utah County Jail.

"Yeah, it's a little bump," Green said, "but the program is still valid in that people need housing. We feel that housing is part of the answer — not the answer, but it's part of the answer. The answer is being able to start dealing with Thomas on his cognitive behavior, zero in on some of those things and help him get through these things."

Plus, Green knows that recovery is a lengthy process.

"It's one thing to make a mistake," he said. "It's another thing how we deal with it. We all make mistakes, how we handle them is more important than anything."

The REAP program — modeled after a pilot program in Salt Lake County — is spearheaded by Green and Utah County Sheriff Sgt. Robin Wall, who realized homelessness was a giant hurdle for folks who were just released from jail.

But getting a place to call home isn't the only hurdle. Finding a job, paying debts, buying groceries or making a budget are skills many like McGowan had never learned, Green said.

So participants are teamed up with volunteer mentors, who know how to access government-funded services as well as how to get help from organizations devoted to ending homelessness in Utah County.

And it's working, McGowan insists, despite his slight backsliding.

"The program's wonderful," he says. "Each and every day, we come to forks in the road and ... as long as we make the wiser decision, then we continue on that right path. This particular day, I allowed feelings and other things to overwhelm me and I made the wrong decision. If there's a fault, the fault is with Tom. The program is wonderful. It gives people hope."

REAP — which began in July with $60,000 from the state — is aimed at an average of 180 inmates in the Utah County Jail who are considered transient or homeless. Right now, the program has seven slots, and Green is hoping to get as many as 20 slots in the future.

"Someone (after their) 12th, 13th, 14th time in jail, they're sick and tired of being sick and tired," Green said. "But the root problem is they've been homeless. When they're homeless, guess who they meet in jail? Drug dealers (who say) 'Come and live with me.'"

So when they get out, rather than face a night under an overpass, they'll spend it on their drug dealer's couch, Green said. And it's back into the drug-abuse cycle.

McGowan didn't spend the night on a drug dealer's couch. He merely asked for a ride to the grocery store.

The driver, his next-door neighbor, told McGowan he could get drugs for him, anything he wanted.

"I don't know (if this was) a friendship," McGowan said. "A drug dealer is not a friend, but when you're using you consider a drug dealer a friend."

Eventually, McGowan hit a low spot and asked the man for cocaine. The two used together until their money ran out.

A fight two weeks ago over an alleged debt landed McGowan back in jail with two black eyes, broken ribs and a burglary charge.

McGowan denies that he broke in and insists that he and the man both knew he was waiting at the man's apartment so they could discuss the debt. But when the man returned and McGowan said he didn't have the money right then, the man beat him up, he said.

But the man told police McGowan had broken in and stolen some of his stuff, so McGowan was taken to jail.

He's been in jail since Dec. 15, spending his days clearing his thoughts and praying that God will help him be strong.

McGowan's conversations are sprinkled with Scripture references and allusions to a higher power, although he claims no particular religion.

He devours the Bible and applies Scriptures, like verses in Psalms 37, to himself.

"The Lord guides the steps of the righteous man, though he falls he will not utterly be consumed, (the Lord) will uphold him with his right hand," McGowan quotes from memory.

"You can't give up on people, because there's always going to be failure," he says. "People are going to fail ... but the Lord never ever gives up on people."

It's that feeling of support that gives him the energy to try again.

McGowan's former employer, Mary Crafts, owner of Culinary Crafts in Orem, said she was sad to lose McGowan, who had been a hard worker until his relapse.

Despite that, she said he would consider hiring him again when he gets things worked out.

"The environments these people need the most are the ones least likely to invite them in," Crafts said. "(People are) too fearful, threatened to have them in their midst. We are so blind. They are the invisible population. We need to open our hearts."

And that love is especially needed after mistakes like this, said Charles Williams, McGowan's mentor and a recovering addict himself.

"As far as those who would-be doubters," William said, "these people are worth it, they are certainly worth it. They turn into quite wonderful human beings when they get through it. It's just getting them through it.

"We can ignore the problems and (they will) continue to grow," he says. "Or we can change a person's life ... and know that they'll be there to help in the battle after."