After abuse, addiction, homelessness and delusion, Nick Rentschler has finally found stability.
Nick Rentschler never knew the feeling of being “at home.” Not in a house, not in a family, not even in his own skin. For as far back as he can remember, home – a place of safety, sanity and stability – was an abstract concept that had no relevance to the impermanence, dysfunction and trauma of his own life.
At the age of two, Nick and his three-years-older brother, John, were taken by Child Protective Services from their mother — who lived with mental illness and was deemed unfit to care for them —and placed in the state foster care system. Nick only knows this because his adoptive parents later told him so; he doesn’t remember meeting his biological mother until he was 19 years old.
For the next four years, the two boys would be shifted from foster home to foster home – nineteen in all, most of which Rentschler winces to remember. The last was with a family who lived on a farm in the rural countryside outside Sarasota, Florida, with a menagerie of animals and room for a young boy to roam. It is one of the few happy memories of his childhood.
“We got to ride the horses, play with the pigs, run around, chase the chickens, it was nice, man,” says Rentschler, 30, who now has a thick “mountain man” beard and a casual self-effacement. “But remember, that was one out of 19. My memory of the rest of the 18 wasn’t what you’d want to hear.”
When Nick was 6 and John 9, they were legally adopted by the Rentschlers. At first, it seemed like the home they’d always longed for. The family lived in a comfortable three-bedroom house in a nice neighborhood, with “a pool, a porch and food on the table every night.” And, at least initially, his new parents tried to make the boys feel secure and cared for.
But what at first seemed a pretty picture had an uglier underbelly, Rentschler says. His stepfather’s drinking turned him from protector to predator. It started with inappropriate touching and advanced to molestation, with threats to secure his silence.
“John was strong enough to say no,” Rentschler recalls, “but I was afraid. I didn’t want to get hit or anything so I became the main target.”
Over several years, as the “nightmare” of abuse continued, Rentschler kept the painful secret. Finally, after an incident he says “approached rape,” he reached a breaking point. Struggling to find the words, he reported to his elementary school teacher what was happening.
“I said, ‘I think my Dad is gay,’” he recalls, “and she said, ‘What makes you say that?’ And I’m like, well, he does things, he touches me, he goes the distance.’ It wasn’t pretty what I had to tell her.”
The next day, a squadron of police cars showed up at the Rentschler home. Officers arrested his stepfather and confiscated his computer. Nick and his brother were left in the home with their stepmother, who claimed to know nothing about the abuse (though Rentschler remains skeptical —“You live with the man, you have to know something’s going on”).
For the next 19 months his stepfather remained in jail. Nick and John were interviewed in detail by social workers with the Department of Children and Families and received months of counseling that, in the end, only served to exacerbate the trauma.
“It lasted a long time, the ongoing back and forth to the doctors,” says Rentschler, who was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. “Every time I went they would bring it up again and I would have to relive it over and over.”
His stepmother, working at a bank by day and struggling to keep up with the bills, took to crying – “no, howling” Rentschler amends — at night. She pressured him to recant his testimony and complained that he and John contributed nothing and were a drain on the family. Finally, Rentschler says, “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“I felt like I had to change my story,” he admits. “When they brought me in front of the detectives again, to ask me the same questions they’d asked over 100 times, I finally just said, ‘He didn’t do it.’ Even though they told me, listen Nick, what you’re saying could get you in big trouble for lying, I said, ‘I don’t care, let him go.’ Why? Because I didn’t want to be homeless again.”
His stepfather was released, the bills started to be paid again and “everything was smooth sailing for a while,” recalls Rentschler. But the animosities that had been established made for a volatile truce. Inevitably, one day the tension broke.
Nick asked if he could go to the mall with friends. His stepfather said no, so he called his stepmother at work to ask her permission instead. As he hung up the phone, he felt a swift hard kick to his back side. Enraged, he whipped around and hit his stepfather “hard,” knocking him to the floor. Then Rentschler threw some personal belongings in a bag and fled, determined to run away forever.
He was just 13.
For a month he scraped by, staying “literally, all over the place.” After making his way to St. Petersburg, he was “busted” by the police and returned to his adoptive home. Though his stepfather would never again abuse him, Rentschler’s mental torment continued — only now it was the symptoms of his schizophrenia that caused his suffering. Auditory and visual hallucinations made it impossible for him to focus on even the simplest conversations. He had no understanding of his illness or even that he was sick and no one to turn to but friends who led him further astray.
“They’d say, ‘Here’s something that might help you, man,’ and hand me a joint,” he says. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I started doing drugs.”
Marijuana escalated to cocaine and illicitly obtained painkillers. By 17, he was doing heavy amounts of drugs, hanging with the wrong crowd and coming into regular conflict with the law. Broke and desperate for drug money, he and a friend attempted a break in and robbery. When caught, the arresting officer smiled at him and promised, “You’re getting put away for a long time now, buddy.”
Rentschler spent a year in the Falkenberg Academy, an alternative school for juvenile offenders in Tampa, Florida, a time he calls “the worst experience ever.” He got a rapid introduction into “gangster” life from his fellow inmates, all males who were “very knowledgeable about street smarts.”
Released after a year, but descending deeper into his psychosis and still unmedicated, he returned to the Rentschler home, where John was still living. He became convinced his stepparents were mistreating his brother and making him the scapegoat for all their problems, something he couldn’t tolerate since John had always been his biggest protector and staunchest supporter. He told his stepparents he refused to live in the home if they could not treat John respectfully. They invited him to leave.
That’s when he and John made a failed attempt to reunite with their birth mother. Mired in her own schizophrenia, strung out on heavy anti-psychotic medications and deep into a hoarding obsession, she lived in a condemned trailer full of roaches, rodents and crammed with useless clutter. The situation quickly proved untenable.
“The whole thing behind me and John living there was to rejoin the family we’d lost,” Rentschler, then 19, recalls. “But it didn’t work at all. She was too far gone into her own diagnosis. We were living in poverty, I was on no medication and I was self-medicating.”
By this point, his drug use had escalated to smoking crystal meth and crack cocaine and snorting opioids. (Fortunately, his initial experience with heroin left him with the conviction that “I never wanted to go near that stuff again.”) Eventually even the street seemed more appealing than the squalor of his mother’s home. He chose homelessness, “dropping wherever I dropped” at night and panhandling to feed his drug habit.
For the next half dozen years, Rentschler was either on the street or in jail, where he estimates he spent a total of about four years. Beginning in 2009, he racked up 45 arrests, most of them for misdemeanor counts related to his homelessness.
“I became addicted to spice (synthetic marijuana) and was smoking a lot of crack,” he says. “It came to a point where I wanted to lay down and die, because there was just nothing to live for.”
In 2018 he was arrested again, but by this time the Sarasota judicial system had created a diversion program known as Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC). A collaborative effort of the judicial system, Centerstone (a mental health facility) and several social service nonprofits, it was targeted to assist people like Rentschler, chronic offenders who were homeless and mentally ill.
Based on a “housing first” philosophy, CTC program participants are provided with a place to live and wrap-around medical, social and employment supports designed to help them recover and reintegrate into the community. If they meet the program requirements, their legal infractions are dismissed.
Rentschler, still deep in his addiction, spent a restless night in jail deciding whether to accept the offer. In the morning he agreed and was provided with temporary housing at the local Salvation Army.
After three weeks, an “awesome” young woman with a bright smile and what Rentschler calls “colorful hair” came to tell him they’d found permanent housing for him. The woman was Megan Howell of Second Heart Homes, a fledgling nonprofit that works hand in hand with the CTC to keep program participants housed and surrounded by encouragement and unconditional love.
Howell took Rentschler to the house he would share with five other CTC participants. Before he’d even entered the door, he looked at her in disbelief and asked, “Can I stay here forever?”
“She looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, yeah you can,’” Rentschler recalls. “And I was like. ‘All right! At last! It was the best feeling ever.”
Today Rentschler serves as the house manager (affectionately known as the “House Duke”) for Second Heart Homes’ group residence. He helps new clients get situated and answers their questions, taking his position as “a leader, a role model, a mentor” seriously. He’s also begun volunteering with the property manager of the organization’s group homes, learning to do simple carpentry, repair work and painting.
The struggle to defeat his addiction has been “a real fight,” but one he was determined to win. As a member of the group house, he is subject to random drug tests and has remained clean and sober. He’s also received sustained and quality medical attention for the first time in his life. While the monthly injection of anti-psychotic medication he receives has not left him entirely free of the symptoms of his schizophrenia, it has reduced them to a manageable level.
“I see half of what I used to see and hear half of what I used to hear,” he says. “I still to hear and see stuff, but it’s controllable. And now that I know it’s not real, I don’t act on it. The medication has allowed me to move forward.”
He’s working toward attaining his GED, receiving tutoring from some “really smart” Sarasota Ballet dancers who volunteer their time. Seeing his leadership abilities, his support team has encouraged him to consider becoming a peer specialist, someone who counsels others who also wrestle with mental illness and addiction. It was the first time in his life anyone ever suggested he could have a career.
“They said, ‘Nick, you have the potential to be a peer specialist’ and I said, ‘What’s that? It doesn’t sound very interesting,’” he says, laughing. “Then they explained it’s where you go and help people and I thought, well that sounds better. That’s exactly what I want to do – help people who are in my situation and share with them how I fought for what I have.”
Rentschler says everyone on his CTC team – from Howell, to his doctors to the judge who accepted him into the program – has treated him with respect, dignity and humanity. That’s something he’d never experienced before either.
John’s story has a happy ending as well. Clean and sober, working for a waste management company and engaged to be married, he remains a pride and inspiration to Rentschler, who says if it weren’t for his brother, “I’d be dead already.”
Even now there are mornings Rentschler wakes up and looks at the roof over his head with incredulity. To know he won’t get drenched if it rains, won’t wake up with sores from sleeping on concrete, can enjoy a daily shower and a healthy meal and live without the constant hunt for drugs still seems too good to be true.
Finally, he understands what it means to be “at home.” And he’ll do whatever it takes to stay there.
“I never want to lose what I have,” he says, “because it took me so long to get here.”