In another lifetime, Tina passed by homeless people without so much as a second glance.
“I remember thinking, why can’t they just go get a job?” she said.
Back then, she worked at a law firm as an administrative assistant. She and her mother lived in Las Vegas and shared a white-and-red-tile brick home with a backyard pool.
Tina, 52, never imagined that she would one day find herself out on the streets. But she said her life slowly fell apart, piece by piece, after her mother died from pneumonia several years ago.
“She was my best friend,” said Tina, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “She was the last of my family. After she died, I didn’t have anybody else.”
Tina said she sank into a deep depression and struggled with panic attacks.
She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t focus at work. She was fired from her job, and bills mounted up. Decisions needed to be made — what should she do, where should she go — and she wasn’t up to the task.
She lost her house and started bouncing between living in a trailer, a shelter or out on the streets. She eventually started a tumultuous relationship with an alcoholic.
Plans for a fresh start never quite pan out, Tina said. She and her then-sober boyfriend moved to Wyoming this year to work at a lodge. But he relapsed, got into fights with the employer and they both lost their jobs.
“That’s how I ended up here,” she said, looking around the women’s living space at Park Street Center, the Wyoming Rescue Mission’s new shelter near downtown Casper.
The brand new facility, which officially opened last month, is more than a typical shelter. The 22,000-square-foot center offers a wide range of services aimed at fully integrating homeless citizens back into society.
On a weeknight in late-October, about a dozen women were scurrying around, brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed. It was almost 10 p.m., the official lights-out time, which is strictly enforced.
Tina said she felt defeated when she first arrived. But her attitude’s already shifting. She’s applying for jobs, bonding with her roommates, meeting weekly with her case manager and receiving counseling at the nearby Healthcare for the Homeless clinic.
She’s starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this might be her last stint at a shelter.
“I don’t want to get into this situation again,” she said. “It’s hard, and I want a normal life.”
Permanently breaking out of the cycle of homelessness can be difficult, according to Brad Hopkins, the director of the Wyoming Rescue Mission, a Christian nonprofit that helps the homeless community.
The root of the problem must be fixed, but homeless citizens generally don’t have the resources to solve the underlying issues, he said.
“When you’re homeless you go into survival mode, and all you’re thinking about is where your next meal is coming from or where you can go to be safe,” he said.
Hopkins said that’s why the rescue mission believes it’s important to offer guests more than just a hot meal and a bunk bed.
“Our whole goal is to fully restore lives,” he said.
It’s an ambitious mission, but Hopkins said the new shelter is already making it easier to achieve.
Park Street Center held its grand opening ceremony Oct. 9. More than 100 guests attended the celebration, including a handful of local and state politicians.
The new building offers twice as many beds as the old shelter, as well as a larger kitchen and dining area. It also has more space for additional services: There’s a computer lab so guests can research and apply for jobs; a mini clinic that offers weekly healthcare; a chapel for those who wish to reflect or pray; and classrooms that host a variety of workshops, like budgeting and anger management.
There’s also a detox room where guests who are under the influence can sober up.
Hopkins estimated that the rescue mission cares for about 1,200 guests per year.
Michael Cavalier, the shelter’s marketing coordinator, said the additional space was sorely needed.
“That was a huge issue before,” he said. “We would have people sleeping on the floor in the hallways or in the dining room.”
Gov. Matt Mead, who spoke at the grand opening, said he’s confident the new shelter will be an invaluable asset for Wyoming.
“They have a wonderful staff, and they’re doing exactly what they need to do,” he told the Star-Tribune.
Homelessness is a cause close to the governor’s heart. In 2013, Mead tapped the Wyoming Department of Family Services to develop a strategy for addressing homelessness. The department has since launched “A Home for Everyone” — a 10-year plan to study and raise awareness about homelessness in Wyoming.
Some believed the private sector already had a handle on homelessness and questioned whether the government needed to be heavily involved, according to Mead.
“I think the answer is that a coordinated effort statewide can do a better job,” he said.
The plan connected all the shelters in Wyoming by implementing a coordinated data entry system so the facilities can easily share information, said Karla McClaren, the state’s homelessness program manager.
An annual point and time count is also held each January. Teams of volunteers are assembled in each county to count every homeless person, sheltered or unsheltered, that they can find, McClaren said.
In 2014, the count recorded 757 homeless citizens. In 2018, that figure was 639, McClaren said.
The program manager said the data likely isn’t perfect; some people may be sleeping on a friend’s couch or living in their car. But she’s hopeful that the homeless rate is moving in the right direction.
“Little declines are significant for a state of our population — we were happy with that,” she said.
Last winter, Elizabeth might have been among those the count missed.
The 44-year old, who asked that her last name not be published, said she lived in her truck for months, along with her two dogs, Duchess, a border collie, and Dawg, a German shepherd. They would cuddle together under piles of blankets, trying to stay warm as the snow swirled and temperatures dropped.
She speaks in a matter-of-fact manner about the experience, though she recalls there were one or two nights when she feared they might freeze.
But Elizabeth, who struggles with depression and alcoholism, said she didn’t have anywhere else to go. She lost her administrative job at a medical center after repeatedly showing up late. As someone who lived paycheck to paycheck, it wasn’t long before she was out on the streets.
Moving in with relatives or checking into a shelter weren’t options at that point because of her drinking. But that changed after she served three months in jail for multiple DUIs, she said.
“I’ve been sober for five months...” she said in October. “Jail scared me pretty bad. You take for granted the sunshine on your face or fresh air.”
It wasn’t an easy year, but she said things are finally improving.
Elizabeth, now a guest at Park Street Center, said she spends her days filling out job applications, meeting with the shelter’s case manager, attending group therapy at a nearby counseling center and visiting her dogs, who are staying at the Pet Ring Foundation.
Elizabeth added that it’s easier to end up on the streets than some might think.
“There are a lot of people who don’t realize they are only a paycheck or two away from being in our shoes,” she said.
Sara, a 40-year old with shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes, agreed. The college graduate said she never imagined she would end up at a shelter.
But in 2009, she was hit with two back-to-back blows. Her fiance died in a car accident, only months after she was laid off from her job as a senior real estate loan processor due to the national housing crisis.
“That was the beginning of everything,” said Sara, who did not want her last name published.
The couple’s 9-year relationship wasn’t perfect. They were on a break at the time of his death, a fact that left Sara riddled with guilt. She didn’t want to think or feel or remember — so she started drinking to black out.
“Every day was the same,” she said. “I was just living for the drink, there was no other interest.”
As her drinking intensified, she said it became harder to hold on to jobs. She once got fired from a cashier position after an employer realized her Pepsi bottle was actually filled with vodka.
She felt worthless and became involved with a “not-so-good man” with whom she had lived on and off for years.
Sara, who’s between jobs, said she came to Park Street Center after running out of money. She’s focusing on staying sober and finding new work.
Some days she feels hopeful. Other days not so much.
“There’s heartbreak in making it to 40 and feeling as if you disappeared, that no one would even notice,” she said, tearing up. “It’s hard to feel hope when you are so scared about the future, but without hope what is there? I have to believe there’s a reason I’m here.”
Rebuilding one’s life might seem impossible at times, said Jackie Pickinpaugh, the shelter’s director of women’s services.
But she knows for a fact it’s not. Pickinpaugh said she’s seen countless guests improve their lives, whether it was by finding jobs, enrolling in school, breaking bad patterns or regaining their sense of self-worth.
Sitting at her desk inside the shelter, she opens a drawer and pulls outs out a bag overflowing with thank you letters sent to the Wyoming Rescue Mission.
“God has angels on Earth and you are one of them,” wrote one former guest.
“Thank you for everyone who helped me to be honest with myself,” wrote another.
From illnesses and addictions to a death in the family or domestic violence, Pickinpaugh said the circumstances that lead to homelessness are often heart-wrenching. But overall, she said the shelter is a place of hope, not despair.
Tina agreed. The shelters in Las Vegas were rough; drug-use and fights were common. But the Park Street Center isn’t a frightening place.
“This place is like family,” she said, adding that she’s drawn strength from her friendship with the other guests.
But that’s not to say she wants to stay forever.
She dreams about getting a desk job and moving into a little apartment that she would decorate with her needlepoints. She wants to adopt a cat to cuddle and to sleep past 6 a.m., the shelter’s official wake-up time.
After struggling with homelessness on and off for years, Tina said she now realizes its not as easy to put your life back together as she once thought.
She said she sometimes thinks back to the homeless people she passed by on the streets of Las Vegas.
“I didn’t know what they were going through; you don’t see that,” she said. “I never thought this would happen to me. When it does — it’s hard.”
To learn more about how to help the homeless community, visit wyomission.org
They were teenagers.
They weren’t ready to care for themselves, much less a child.
So she went to group home in Salt Lake. He finished high school.
They had a son they never saw, who went to a family they never knew, and all of the heartache, memories and trauma went in a box in a closet.
They couldn’t look inside. It was too painful. So they didn’t speak of him, their baby.
They married when they were barely 20. Finished college and had three daughters. They lived their lives.
For 47 years.
And then one day this summer, Kim and Walt Gasson bought a kit from one of those online ancestry sites. They spit in tubes in their home in Laramie, and checked a box asking if they wanted to find any DNA matches.
Somewhere in Utah, a man named Clark Jones filled out the same forms and checked the same box.
The results found a match between those teenagers and that baby.
So Clark wrote an email.
And then he waited.
It was the summer of 1971, in southwest Wyoming. Walt and Kim knew they were in love, but they also knew they were young.
When Kim found out she was pregnant, having the baby just wasn’t an option.
“It was heart breaking,” Kim said. “But it was the right thing. The decision was made for us, not that there were a lot of alternatives in Green River, Wyoming, at that time.”
“And truthfully looking at it, we were 17 and 18,” Walt said. “We were singularly dumb.”
“Unprepared,” Kim corrected.
“Unprepared would be the diplomatic way to say it, to enter into parenthood.”
Kim’s mom shipped her to Latter-day Saints social services in Salt Lake City, which ran a group home for unwed mothers. It was a different time then. A time when teen pregnancies were hidden, shamed.
There she stayed for five months, working as a nanny and watching her belly slowly grow. Walt wrote her a letter each day keeping her updated on friends and life back home. Once a month his mom or aunt and uncle would drive him to Salt Lake to take her for dinner.
Sometime near her due date, staff brought her into a hospital room, induced her and put her under general anesthesia.
“I woke up and wasn’t pregnant, and I didn’t have a baby.”
She didn’t see him.
She didn’t hold him.
She didn’t hear his first cry.
“We didn’t know his weight,” Kim said.
“We knew the day he was born, and it was a boy. That was all,” Walt said.
“It left a hole in our hearts,” Kim added.
Walt and Kim enrolled in the University of Wyoming pursuing degrees in wildlife conservation and social work, respectively. They got married in 1973 after their freshman year.
Graduation followed, as did jobs in wildlife and parenting.
They had a daughter together, Jenny Hanrahan, then two years later another daughter, and four years after that another daughter.
They moved around from Pavillion to Gillette and Gillette to Cheyenne.
Constants remained in their lives: Summers at the Gasson family cabin on the west side of the Wind River Range; elk hunting in the fall; Christmas tree cutting the day after Thanksgiving.
And life went on, as life does.
When the girls were in their 20s, Kim and Walt decided to tell them about their brother.
“We thought, ‘This is something they need to know. It’s part of their history, and our history, and it was time,” Kim said.
But, the parents also cautioned, there was no way to find him.
“When we asked them if they wanted to try and find him, they said that they didn’t think it was possible. I wanted to honor that. For them it was a chapter of their lives that had closed, and we wanted to respect that,” said Beth Worthen, their middle daughter.
“Beth and I had plotted -- there was some plotting -- about trying to track down the hospital, trying to track down birth records,” said Sarah Bade, the youngest daughter. “And there was some resolution that that wasn’t our place to do, that was up to mom and dad.”
So they waited, and wondered.
“Secretly, I would look on social media where pictures would be posted of someone trying to find their birth family, or when I would go to Utah, I would secretly scan faces to see if anyone looked like me,” Beth said.
On Father’s Day this year, Kim saw a deal on a website called Ancestry.com, one of those companies that analyzes your DNA to show links to your past.
Maybe it would tell them more about their ancestors, they thought, or identify a distant cousin. They never considered anything else. They couldn’t. Just imagining the possibility, and the sheer unlikelihood, would be too painful.
Ten days after that little baby boy was born in Salt Lake, he was placed in the hands of Barbara Jones.
Barbara and her husband, J Stephen, were living in Georgia, where Stephen was finishing his doctorate in education. They had one biological daughter but couldn’t have more. They gave the baby a name, J Clark, and raised him as their own, adopting three more children over the next seven years.
The family eventually moved to Boise, Idaho, then Fruit Heights, Utah.
“We just lived like every other family,” Clark said. “My parents always raised me as their own biological son. There was never any distinction between you’re adopted or not adopted.”
He served on an LDS mission in Taiwan, then went to college in Weber State where he studied marketing. He met Jana, a girl from his neighborhood, and not long after, they married.
They had three sons, and life went on.
“The only time I thought about it was on my birthday, Jan. 28. It was the only day I wondered if someone else out there thought that day meant something to them like it meant to me.”
But even if he had wanted to find them, he didn’t know how to start.
Closed adoptions were the norm in the ‘70s. They were established to prevent the birth family and child from reconnecting. It wasn’t part of the deal.
All Barbara had was a 3-by 5- inch index card that listed Clark’s weight, birth date and gender, along with his birth parent’s height and hair and eye color.
“I knew, because it was a closed adoption, to find anything about it I would end up in a basement someday, in a dark basement of a courthouse or adoption agency or something, trying to go over records, and I thought, ‘I have no motivation to do that.’”
“Every adopted kid that goes through a closed adoption that doesn’t know anything about their backstory has an idea that lands somewhere between two people hooked up at a truck stop and I’m an heir to a billion-dollar fortune. There is a backstory, but is it a backstory you want to know? I’ve always felt I wasn’t given up because I wasn’t wanted but because the timing wasn’t right for them to have kids. That’s how I always felt.”
But he kept seeing ads for companies that analyze DNA.
Maybe he would find some distant relative, he thought, or at least learn some of his heritage.
Early this summer, when he saw a sale on Ancestry.com, he bought a kit.
The initial results showed he had some potential matches as second and third cousins.
“That’s the first time I thought, ‘Holy cow these people share blood with me, DNA with me.”
A month later, he reopened the account to show a colleague how it worked. A notice flashed that it had found more matches.
He clicked on it.
Staring back at him was the sentence:
“Walt Gasson is your father.”
Sitting at a computer in his office, Clark wasn’t sure what to think.
So he texted his wife.
They immediately started looking on Facebook. “Benign Facebook stalking,” they’ve come to call it.
Kim’s name hadn’t been in the Ancestry site, but it did have a link to a family tree. He saw that his birth parents were married.
He decided to write them an email through the site. A mild email. An unassuming email.
“I said, ‘I don’t even know how to ask this question, but I’m going to try to. I am adopted and Ancestry DNA seems to think we’re related, and it pegged you guys as my birth parents, and I wonder if there’s any validity to that.’
“I tried to keep it benign, but at the same time, you think, ‘Is this a chapter of their lives they want to keep closed and now you’ve opened it, or were they actively trying to find me? You don’t know what’s on the other side of that screen.”
And then he waited.
A week went by with no response.
He decided to send Walt a Facebook message.
“I said ‘If you get a chance to look at Ancestry, could you reply to that and get back to me, I would really appreciate it.”
Within 24 hours, he had a response.
Yes, there was a chance, Walt and Kim wrote, and they would be happy to answer any questions.
“We never checked our Ancestry email,” said Kim. “He waited a week, and I felt terrible him thinking, 'They don’t really care.'”
“Kim, she identified some resources we could check about how you go about reuniting as a birth parent or child, how do you do it right and not mess it up,” Walt said. “We spent some time doing some research on how to go about this.”
They knew it was him. Beyond the striking similarities in resemblance: the wide, slightly tilted smile, the strong jaw line, the hazel eyes. And only a handful of people still alive knew the date and hospital where Clark was born.
Those early cautious emails snowballed into a flurry of emails, texts and video chats.
Clark learned about his new sisters and nine nieces and nephews. The Gassons learned about Clark’s wife and three sons.
Clark realized where his love for the outdoors – a foreign concept to his adopted family – may have originated. He explained that his adopted dad died in 2012, and that his adopted mom and older sister still lived near him.
Clark also shared each bit of information about his birth family with his adopted mom, now 79.
“I said, ‘How do you feel about this?’ And she said, ‘They will meet a fantastic guy, and I worked for 47 years for that to work.’”
The new family has plans for hunting and fishing trips. For summer vacations at the Gasson family cabin and for Christmas tree cutting the day after Thanksgiving. The parents and kids and grandkids talk every day.
But before vacations and holidays together, they needed to meet, face to face.
And so on Nov. 3 -- 46 years, nine months and six days after waking in a hospital room without a baby -- Kim Gasson ran down her driveway and hugged her son.