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April 19, 2014

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FACES OF THE RECESSION:

Couple looks to future after leaving desert homeless camp

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

In the Clark County Library, Michelle Brower holds Layla while looking through college financial aid information while John Brower fills out employment applications he had gathered June 30, 2010. The Browers stopped at the library to use the computers to fill out online employment applications and took advantage of the wait to fill out paper applications. Michelle had completed some college and eventually wants to go back to finish her degree.

Faces of the Recession

In the Clark County Library, Michelle Brower holds Layla while looking through college financial aid information while John Brower fills out employment applications he had gathered June 30, 2010. The Browers stopped at the library to use the computers to fill out online employment applications and took advantage of the wait to fill out paper applications. Michelle had completed some college and eventually wants to go back to finish her degree. Launch slideshow »

Existing in the open desert around Las Vegas is inconceivable for many people who have sampled its harsh winters and deadly summers.

Michelle Brower, who lost her job at a crafts store because of the recession, did it while both homeless and pregnant.

It wasn’t an easy life, sleeping in a flimsy nylon tent amid the sometimes terrifying sounds of the city and the desert, praying the latest rainstorm wouldn’t flood the homeless camp and send her fleeing into the nearby streets.

Through it all, she looked for work. But just looking presentable enough to walk into a business for an application was challenging. In the desert she had no running water, no shower, no washing machine. It took at least two hours by bus to get across town to a Henderson church known for providing these amenities to the homeless. Cleaning up to seek work generally took half the day. And the closer she came to her due date, the harder it got.

Before the recession, Michelle and her then-boyfriend, John Brower, led a relatively happy life. He worked at a grocery store, she as a waitress and then at the crafts store. She hoped to go back to college.

Like thousands of other residents, the Browers, now married, had lived paycheck to paycheck. They teetered on the brink of homelessness for the better part of a decade. If one of the longtime Las Vegans lost a job, eviction wasn’t far behind.

Even so, they were able to stay with friends, get a new job and scratch together enough money for a deposit on another residence.

“This time it’s different,” John says. The recession has made it harder to bounce back.

Starting in late 2006, the Las Vegas housing market began to decline, slowly at first, then precipitously, taking the rest of the local economy with it. Businesses began laying off workers, including Michelle, 34, and job openings dried up. Competition for the few available jobs heated up.

Then in 2007, Jennifer Rose, John’s 4-year-old daughter from an earlier relationship, was hit by a car and died. He spiraled into depression, lost his job and was arrested for domestic battery after hitting the child’s mother during an argument.

The Browers were in and out of jobs and apartments, sleeping on friends’ couches and in a tent in the desert for weeks.

But even as John began coming out of his grief, their chance at a normal life eluded them. By last fall they still had no jobs, no home, no prospects, and Michelle was pregnant.

She wasn’t afraid — she has a 9-year-old son from a previous relationship who lives with his father, and knew she could get free prenatal care. But a roof over their heads was another issue. The couple thought they had burdened friends and family enough. And because being enclosed with strangers at shelters made them feel trapped, the couple began living in a homeless camp in northwest Las Vegas.

“It was scary,” she says. “But I was too scared of the homeless shelters, and there didn’t seem to be anything else for us.”

They popped a tent in the desert that fall and joined a tight-knit band of half a dozen vagrants. And they quickly became part of a new kind of family, a desert family, that told them how to get government-subsidized bus passes and took them to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Henderson, where they could shower, launder clothes and eat. When the winter rains washed out their camp, they helped one another get re-established. When John was taken to jail for violating his parole by missing counseling sessions for the domestic battery conviction, their new neighbors took care of Michelle.

Despite her growing belly and fear for her family’s future, Michelle made a home for herself in the desert.

“It wasn’t all hell,” Michelle says. “We made the best of it, and we had some good times in the desert. We had bonfires and barbecues and if someone had a radio, we would have a little dance party.”

By the time John was released in early June, the wedding they had been waiting years to have was finally going to happen.

On June 4, friends and family gathered in Morrell Park in Henderson for John and Michelle’s wedding. The park holds special meaning. A memorial to Jennifer Rose is there. The couple wanted to make sure she was somehow part of their happy day. Volunteers from St. Timothy’s donated cake and flowers. Friends from the homeless camp had saved up for months to buy the couple a wedding gift: a car seat for the baby.

The next day, Michelle gave birth to a healthy, blue-eyed girl they named Layla Rayn.

And just like that, living in the tent became unthinkable.

But getting out of the desert is harder than ever amid the recession, the Browers say. You need to create and print resumes, you need a phone, and you need clean clothes for interviews. Getting all of that lined up takes a lot longer when you have to ride a bus for two hours across town just to shower and the only phone you have is at a friend’s house.

That hasn’t left much time for job hunting. They guess they’ve each applied for more than 100 jobs. They’ve been turned down each time. Businesses would rather hire workers with more stable lives.

“That’s been the hardest part of living on the street,” John says. “Even the littlest things are harder.”

The Browers are not alone.

In 2009, an estimated 13,350 homeless people were in Clark County, according to county records. That’s 17 percent over 2007 numbers.

Of those, about 6,640 were living on the streets or in the desert.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness says that’s a drop in the bucket. The group says there are 39,760 Nevadans, mostly in Southern Nevada, couch surfing or in families that are “doubling up” in single-family homes to share expenses. It claims Las Vegas has the fourth highest homelessness rate in the country, behind Detroit, New York City and Los Angeles.

The Browers are determined to beat the odds and get back on their feet.

“You can’t have a baby in the desert, ” Michelle says. “We knew there had to be something out there for us. We just had to look harder.”

When Michelle got out of the hospital, they convinced an ex-girlfriend of John’s to take them in for a couple of weeks while they looked for help with housing and jobs. They have begun job hunting with renewed vigor. Michelle has applied for financial aid and hopes to go back to community college. John wants to eventually attend trade school.

“Something with a future,” he says.

And about a month ago the Browers found more permanent housing, 10 months after moving into the desert, through a program called Straight From the Streets. It turns out the group could have provided them shelter all along.

“I wish I’d known about them, but it’s OK,” Michelle says. “We’re looking forward now. Just forward.”

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