C.J. Martin took her wheelchair and left.
Rather than break a promise to her 13-year-old daughter, she checked herself out of a nursing home and moved to a north Casper park. In the process, becoming homeless.
Her monthly disability check could pay for treatment or a bus ticket home for her daughter, but not both. So Martin kept her promise and sent her daughter a ticket, along with a little extra money for food and souvenirs. She then joined an estimated 1,338 people across Wyoming without shelter, according to numbers from an early 2012 homeless count.
Martin talks about sleeping through the unseasonably hot month of June, having a public park rest room and relying on the goodwill of nearby residents for food. But when she speaks of being separated from her daughter, the 52-year-old wipes away tears with an open hand.
“This is the longest time we’ve ever been apart, and I don’t like it,” she said. “I miss her so much it’s not even funny, but I want her to be safe.”
The two were forced to separate after a fire burned their north Casper apartment in March, and because Martin was in the hospital for knee problems at the time, she sent her daughter to live with her father in New Mexico.
She then underwent rehabilitation at a nursing home from mid-March until the first of June, when Medicaid stopped paying. Martin would have needed her entire $569 disability payment and only monthly income, to cover the bill for June. But there was no way she would break a promise to her daughter for a bus ticket home. And there was no way she could pay for both the ticket and stay.
“So that evening, I told very few people out there, and I left,” she said. “And I have been out on the streets ever since.”
Martin had never been homeless before and assumed she could find a place to stay at a local shelter. She tried them all. She even looked at motels that usually help people in similar situations, and those were booked.
The House of Hope offered her a first-floor room on the men’s floor, but she didn’t want to abandon her daughter’s dog, Maggie — a part basset hound mix. For at least four hours, House of Hope administrators called other agencies in an attempt to place her.
“Nobody would take me in,” she said. “And some of them couldn’t take me in.”
Those with space were not handicapped-accessible or pet friendly.
She took up residence at Mathew Campfield Park where, excluding a few nights in motels, she camped on a bench near the public rest rooms.
“It was the only place I could go where I felt safe, and there were people around there that started taking care of me,” Martin said. “They were being real nice, and it was greatly appreciated.”
A woman once approached her, hand outstretched with a taco and tater tots while Martin sat alone in the park. People who lived nearby continued to care for her, bringing soup, crackers and a small dessert for supper one evening; a towel, washcloth, comb, and toothbrush with toothpaste another. They even thought of her dog.
“This couple was so sweet,” Martin said. “They brought her food, and they brought her water.”
The police stopped by on occasion to tell her she could not live at the park but, with no alternatives, officers were understanding. Martin considered herself fortunate to avoid storms and rain while living outside, although June temperatures reached record highs in Casper.
“It was just the heat and the mosquitoes,” she said.
Martin slept in her wheelchair with the dog for protection.
Before the fire left her homeless, Martin lived with her teenage daughter for 10 years at a North Lincoln Street apartment owned by John Phipps. Cockroaches, increasing rent, inaccessibility and a slew of other problems prompted her to apply for Section 8 housing, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development voucher program for low-income families.
Although Martin applied in late summer of 2011, she was placed on a waiting list — and was still waiting when she left the nursing home. In July, the housing authority called with news about a two-bedroom apartment that would be ready in August.
“We’ve been waiting all this time to get a place,” she said.
But Martin’s plans changed after she was hospitalized for three weeks. On June 28, Martin was on the way to a meeting with Interfaith case workers when a skateboarder struck her near the Center Street underpass. She was admitted to the hospital with a broken right arm and her sole companion, Maggie, was taken to Metro Animal Control.
“They took her one way, and they put me on a gurney and took me the other way,” Martin said.
She was discharged from the hospital Thursday and given a bus ticket to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where another daughter lives. Her teenage daughter still holds the ticket Martin sacrificed to buy. Martin’s step-daughter recently rescued Maggie from Metro and took her to New Mexico.
Although she would have preferred to stay in Casper, Martin said staying with her daughter in Florida will give her a chance to reunite with her teenage daughter and their dog. Eventually, she would like to move to North Carolina with her 13-year-old.
Martin’s bus rolled out of Casper at 12:20 p.m. Thursday. She was scheduled to arrive in Ft. Lauderdale at 11 p.m. Saturday. There, she will await a family reunion.
“I’ve got to find us a place to live in Fort Lauderdale,” she said.
Today, her search begins.