Frightening saga in and out of homelessness

Saturday , March 15, 2014 - 6:58 PM

12-year-old Jackson Cooley recently became homeless with his mom, Tina Cooley. They are now living...

JaNae Francis, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — When Tina and Jackson Cooley look back on the four hours they spent in a crowded homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, their memories are nearly as traumatic as those from the domestic violence they went there to flee.

“There were people around us screaming at their kids, saying, ‘Shut up or I’ll kill you,’ ” said the mother. Some were very close to the beds she and her son were to use at The Road Home shelter that night.

The single mother said she doesn’t want people to get her wrong. She appreciates the efforts of those who support and work at shelters that serve the homeless.

But Cooley said that October night, she and her son were in a warehouse type of situation and surrounded by people who scared them.

“The shelter had an element that could put us at risk,” she said. “I was surprised to see the degree of risk.”

These are the types of issues now being addressed in Ogden with two projects.

Your Community Connection is fundraising to expand its building to increase the numbers of beds and the amount of room it can offer families escaping domestic violence.

The families also likely will have increased privacy.

The Lantern House Homeless Shelter, which will break ground this month, will offer more areas for families and more room to separate the crowds of people than is now available at St. Anne’s Shelter.

A fundraiser also is ongoing for The Lantern House.

Cooley said after trying to read to her then-11-year-old son to get his mind off the situation, she decided sleeping in her car was a better alternative.

“I had called everyone I knew to see if they could give us space on their floor just so we could be safe,” she said.

Finally, Cooley’s former mother-in-law agreed to take Jackson for one night while Cooley slept in her car.

But then the two came to Ogden the next day to stay in the Your Community Connection domestic violence shelter and eventually move into a studio apartment that’s part of the center’s transitional housing program.

“We didn’t have any other place to go,” said Jackson, who is now 12. He described finally feeling safe once he and his mother got their own apartment in December.

Jackson said he has made some friends at Dee Elementary School.

He likes to play video games in the apartment and ride his bike through the neighborhood.

His mother describes herself as a hard worker with many ambitions.

But it was a disease that led her to turn to some relatives’ Salt Lake County home for refuge.

“My disability attorney told me to move in with a family member while he argued our case,” Cooley said.

Cooley had endured domestic violence before in her youth, she said. But she had hoped this time would be different.

But instead, Cooley described a situation that grew to be out of hand in a year and a half.

In the end, the relatives evicted them.

“It was very scary for me to get sick,” she said, explaining that she has always paid her way.

Cooley said she had 30 lesions on her brain at one point because of her illness.

And despite her disability, Cooley said she tried everything she could to take care of herself and her children.

One son, a senior in high school, stayed behind with the relatives because he wanted to finish school where he’d been attending. Cooley had thought she had secured that for him to rejoin her at one point.

She said all she needed to secure an apartment in the area was a letter from her ex-husband stating that he would no longer be paying child support for her 18-year-old son so she could qualify for subsidized housing.

But she said that apartment was lost when she couldn’t get the letter.

“It was very hard to focus on what I should do next, what I could do next,” she said.

But now, with the help of the YCC, Cooley and Jackson say their lives are turning around.

The mother’s health is improving, and she believes much of that improvement likely was brought about by being removed from a toxic environment.

“You can’t be whole unless it’s synergistic,” Cooley said. “It’s inertia. ... It’s emotional and physical.”

She also had a job interview Friday for employment at an architectural design firm.

Cooley said getting the job would create a life-changing situation and allow her to take her son back to his friends in Sandy, where he has spent much of his young life.

Both Jackson and his mother say they are very grateful for miriad services and help they’ve received through the YCC.

Self-esteem and domestic violence classes have helped the two see a light at the end of their sometimes dark tunnel, they said.

Britney McMurray, the transitional housing case manager at YCC, said with background checks required for the nine apartments in the program, transitional housing is able to ensure a level of safety for families who need to put their lives back together.

“Our goal with transitional housing is to get them self-sufficient again,” she said. “They are able to see an end in sight.”

McMurray said these families face a lot of barriers — fear often is a big one.

But once the families can see around the barriers, they are able to transition into more successful lives, she said.

McMurray said as these families receive the reassurance they need, they are able to leave with jobs and a plan for the future most of the time.

The Standard-Examiner is making an effort to raise funds to help address the specific needs of youths who are at risk of becoming homeless or who become homeless.

The Standard-Examiner is donating $1 for efforts to fight youth homelessness for every donation made online as part of the Standard-Examiner Young & Homeless initiative, up to $10,000.

To donate, visit https://cares.standard.net/young-homeless/.

Since the initiative began a month ago, $2,475 has been donated by the community for a total of $2,505 including matching funds.

Contact reporter JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228 or jfrancis@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE.

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