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At the age of 55, Rex "Preacher" Wright acknowledges having a few skeletons in his closet.

But for the first time in years, Wright has a closet.

Wright is one of 30 chronically homeless people in Salt Lake City who have been placed in area apartments over the past year, thanks to a three-year program that aims to connect some of the most vulnerable in society to the most basic of needs.

The Chronically Homeless Services and Housing project recently celebrated its first year by hitting that important benchmark.

"I don't think we can underestimate that achievement. It was no small feat, and it took an awesome team," Casey Erickson, associate director of Utah's Department of Workforce Services, told project committee members earlier this month.In addition, 29 people successfully enrolled in Medicaid, Erickson said.

"It's a time-consuming process, and you have to demonstrate that the person actually has a disability," said Alyson Ainscough, the project's director.

For many clients, that disability is mental illness, which can be difficult to diagnose, particularly if they're substance-dependent, she said.

A combination of resilience and street smarts helps the chronically homeless survive the Wasatch winters. Many refuse to check into shelters because they have canine companions that can't accompany them inside, caseworkers say.

"Also, some are paranoid or have had a bad experience and don't want to put trust in somebody again," Ainscough said. "So they're protecting themselves ... doing the best they can on their own. "

The $1.4 million project, funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, operates out of the downtown Road Home shelter in partnership with several providers, including the 4th Street Clinic, Valley Mental Health, Salt Lake County Behavioral Health, Veterans Administration and Salt Lake County's Housing Authority. The project's ultimate goal is to house 80 chronically homeless people. Its target population are those who grapple with substance abuse and mental illness and have lived on the streets for at least a year or have experienced four periods of homelessness within three years.

Hard knocks • Among the people the project aims to help are those in situations like Wright.

An Idaho native, Wright describes himself as "an old gangbanger." Both his father and grandfather were Ku Klux Klan members, and he followed in their footsteps.One of 15 children, Wright said his dad was a functioning alcoholic who worked long hours farming and driving trucks. His mother was a strong Pentecostal woman. At the age of 12, Wright said he left home and joined the circus, returning home only for brief visits.

Sitting under a large Johnny Cash poster in the tiny downtown studio apartment he moved into three months ago, Wright spoke with pride about having almost two years of sobriety under his belt.

"I ain't but one shot, one drink away from that nightmare again," Wright said, praising his 25-year-old girlfriend for "seeing some good in the old preacher."

"At least it ain't a dope relationship," Wright said of the bond the two of them have formed."We have a lot in common. We both like to crochet."

Gangs and drugs led to crimes that landed him in four different prisons over the course of 30 years.

A photo of a handsome young Wright decked out in Army dress blues adorns one shelf, but Wright quickly slams the door on discussing any military service.

Earlier this year, Wright and his beloved dog Snoopy lived in a tent pitched between two freeway sound walls. Snoopy vanished in March. All that is left now is another photo of Wright and his close companion on another shelf in his new home. Wright believes that somebody stole his best friend, a loss that he said devastated him.Recently diagnosed as bipolar, Wright takes medications to soothe his mood swings.

In April, Wright was hit by a car, an incident that broke his leg and almost caused him to lose it altogether due to infection. Antibiotics, administered intravenously every day for two weeks at the 4th Street Clinic, saved the appendage. Wright now walks with a cane.

Building trust, dispelling myths • Stories like Wright's are familiar to those working to help the chronically homeless.

R oad Home Case Manager Annie Aquila said she first met Wright in February.

"He was known by the medical outreach team that operates out of the 4th Street Clinic," Aquila said. "He camped outside year around and they constantly visited him and had their eye on him. They introduced us."

One of the biggest barriers she faced — one Aquila said she encounters with almost every client — is the homeless population's mistrust of agencies. So her job begins with relationship-building, a development that moves at its own pace.

After establishing trust, the next task is to get clients to sign paperwork so they can begin to access services. She also helps them obtain Social Security cards, birth certificates and government-issued IDs, a process that can take up to three months.

Property managers recently hauled away Wright's wheelchair and some bicycles he planned to repair because they were blocking a walkway. Distressed over the loss, his first call was to Aquila.

"I'm glad I was his first call," Aquila said, noting that his short fuse could have caused him to get evicted. "(This job) is not just housing people. It's making sure they stay housed."

When asked how he feels about Aquila, Wright choked up and said, "Annie's the bomb. She's awesome."

Aquila, a certified social worker, began doing case management in January. She said she loves her work with the chronically homeless — in part because it dispelled assumptions she held in the past.

"Getting to know them and hug them, you realize we're all human and there are reasons for the behavior we see — and it's not frightening anymore," Aquila said. "I walk down streets here and I feel good about where I am, what I do and who I know in this population."

Nothing left but to give back • For Wright, life's hard knocks have all but snuffed out his dreams.

"Until I have money in my pocket, I don't walk into a Harley-Davidson shop," said Wright, who currently lives on $281 per month in general assistance and $160 per month in food stamps. "No use in exciting myself with something I can't have now."

At a friend's request, Wright said he shared his story with 600 junior high students in Draper. Afterward, each wrote him a letter of thanks. Wright said he'd like to do more of that.

"If I can just get through to one of them, it would be well worth it."And while he keeps moving ahead, Wright is grateful to be one of the 30 chronically homeless who have a roof over their heads for now. Twitter: @catmck —

Chronically Homeless Services and Housing Project

Who qualifies • Single individuals who have been homeless for at least a year or have experienced four periods of homelessness in three years. The project targets people with substance abuse disorders and mental illness.

Federally funded • A $1.4 million grant pays for the three-year program.

First-year milestone • 30 individuals were moved off the streets into housing.

Overall goal • To house 80 chronically homeless people.

Source: The Road Home