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Janesville couple helping homeless with a fundraiser—right in their own backyard

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Anna Marie Lux
August 23, 2014

JANESVILLE--Tom Hathaway sees more than addresses when he delivers letters.

The Janesville mail carrier notices people who are experiencing hard times on his route of middle-class to upper-middle-class homes.

Earlier this year, one of his clients brought tears to his eyes.

“I guess this is my new home,” she said, pointing to her car.

Her boyfriend had moved, and she could not afford the mortgage alone.

The emotional encounter was Tom's tipping point. He knew he could no longer be a bystander to poverty.

Tom and his wife, Lori, decided to turn their annual Labor Day gathering with friends and family into a public event to raise money for the homeless.

Their modest backyard on North Adams Street will be the site of the first “Helping the Homeless” fundraiser Sunday, Aug. 31. They plan to continue the effort annually.

Donations of money and goods will benefit five agencies on the frontlines of poverty and homelessness in Rock County:  GIFTS Men's Shelter, Healthnet of Rock County, Project 16:49, ECHO and House of Mercy.

“I've invited my whole route to attend,” Tom said. “Every day, I have people asking how they can help.”

The fundraiser will feature guest speakers to raise awareness about what the agencies do and Catherine Smith, Miss Southern Wisconsin's Outstanding Teen 2014. Food vendors will donate portions of their earnings to the cause. And live music will give rhythm to a good cause.

People can bring items on wish lists from the agencies or they can make monetary donations. They also can bid in a silent auction and enter a raffle.

Tom and Lori are hoping for 2,000 concerned citizens to come and go during the afternoon. They are motivated by a great need in Rock County.

“I've seen firsthand people living in their cars and asking for handouts,” Tom said.

Erin Loveland, manager of House of Mercy, calls homelessness a hidden problem in Janesville.

“It is hard for people to see,” she said. “So for someone like Tom to step up and notice is really special.”

At House of Mercy, homelessness has never been more visible. The shelter for families and single women has had 225 people on a waiting list since June.

“We normally have a heavy time in the summer,” Loveland said. “But I don't remember it ever being like this. It just keeps getting worse. It's hard to find the words to describe how hard it is for the homeless in Janesville.”

She calls homelessness “a huge and growing problem rather than a receding one.” Statewide, the number of people served in emergency shelters increased 12 percent from 2010 to 2013, she said. Nationally, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that homeless numbers are down for the same period.

“We have to find some way to make it right,” Loveland said. “The first step is for people like Tom to stand up, take notice and do something about it.”

Persistent poverty also is reflected at Healthnet of Rock County. Executive Director Jean Randles said the nonprofit agency provided more than 4,400 primary medical visits to patients last year and more than $3 million worth of medication.

“We continue to see people who are completely uninsured and of low income in Rock County,” she said.

Neighbor Margie Fitzsimons is one of Tom's committed helpers. She met him last October when he gave away hotdogs at Halloween.

“I don't think enough attention is placed on homelessness,” she said. “A rapidly growing number of homeless is the working poor. If you lose your job, you have nowhere to go.”

She called Tom “a person of passion.”

“Tom and Lori have a talent for bringing people together,” Fitzsimons said. “They are the No. 1 neighbors in the whole hood.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.



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