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'One little thing': Layoffs, health problems hamper homeless family

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Stacy Vogel
August 24, 2008
— Last fall, Mike and Cheryl Easton thought they were finally building a stable life together.

Mike, who often struggled to find work after serving time in prison a few years ago, had been working nearly a year at Green-Tek in Edgerton making greenhouses. Cheryl stayed home to take care of their three children.


But in October, Mike injured his rotator cuff and lost his job. He couldn’t find steady work, and the family built up a huge utility bill it couldn’t pay.


In late April, Mike, Cheryl and the children—8-year-old Adrian, 6-year-old Alexandria and 1-year-old David—moved out of their Academy Street apartment and into House of Mercy, a homeless shelter for women and families run by Mercy Health System.


“It just came to the point where we just kept getting farther and farther behind, and out of fairness for (the landlord) and for us, we just said we can’t go like this any longer,” Mike said.


The Eastons’ story is fairly common at the shelter, said Ron Del Ciello, House of Mercy director.


House of Mercy is an emergency shelter, meaning it’s a last resort and residents can stay only 30 days. Almost all of the shelter’s residents fall into at least one of three categories, Del Ciello said:


-- Single-parent families.


-- People with chronic problems, such as alcoholism or drug abuse, who have gone through rehabilitation and are trying to make fresh starts.


-- Families that have had temporary setbacks, such as an illness or job loss


The Eastons fall into the last category, Del Ciello said. He sees many families with parents who manage to pay the rent with low-wage jobs, until calamity strikes.


“The amazing thing is they can hold it together,” he said. “But one little thing happens, an illness where they’re off work, problems with transportation, anything … ”


Troubled background

For Mike, 27, injuring his shoulder was the latest in a long line of problems. He grew up in foster homes and got into trouble as a teen. He partied, drank too much and built a criminal record, he said.


In 2002, he was sentenced to three years in prison for felony theft.


“Before I went to prison I was—I don’t know how you want to say it—a creep,” Mike said. “I was no good, ya know? Just out for myself. I burned a lot of bridges in a lot of places.”


But Mike tried to turn his life around after leaving prison. He gained custody of his two children, Adrian and Alexandria, and soon met Cheryl, 41. The couple had a third child, David, and married in 2007.


But Mike found that rebuilding his life wasn’t so easy.


“I’ll do good for so long, and something will happen with my job,” he said. “It seems, like, impossible for me to get anywhere.”


Another calamity

A week after the Eastons moved into House of Mercy, things were starting to look up for the family. The children had made friends at the shelter and liked playing on the playground in the backyard. Mike had found a job making $8.50 an hour at Rock Paint Distribution in Milton. Cheryl was looking for a job, too, even though she had been having dizzy spells and migraines for a few months.


The family was hoping to save money from Mike’s new job to get an apartment when its 30 days at the shelter were up.


Then calamity struck again.


First, Mike was laid off from his new job.


Later that week, as Cheryl prepared to go job-hunting, Mike noticed she seemed pale and weak. He convinced her to go to the emergency room.


Cheryl suffered a stroke in the hospital waiting room. She was flown by helicopter to University Hospital in Madison, where doctors discovered she had a blood clot in her neck.


“It was a horrifying day,” Mike said.


Since then, Cheryl has had a series of tests in Madison. BadgerCare, the state insurance program for low-income families, will pay for most of her medical expenses. But she hasn’t been able to look for a job, and Mike has had to spend the money he’s made working odd jobs through the shelter on gas to get to Madison.


But Mike was glad the family was living at House of Mercy when Cheryl had her stroke, he said. The staff and volunteers took care of her that day and in the time since.


He hates to think of what could have happened if Cheryl had been alone in their apartment when she had her stroke.


“I would’ve been at work. Cheryl would’ve went off to go look for a job or she would’ve been at home completely sick,” he said. “She would’ve been sitting there in that house with David, and she probably wouldn’t be here today.”


Rebuilding again

By May 28, the Eastons were again trying to rebuild their lives. Their month at the shelter was up, and they were moving the next day into Mike’s father’s two-bedroom home.


Mike was hoping to find a new job or be rehired by Rock Paint, but the first priority was caring for Cheryl, he said. The family was waiting to hear if Cheryl would need heart surgery.


The children had mixed feelings about living at grandpa’s house, Mike said.


“We’ve been talking to them about it, ask them how they feel,” he said. “Adrian, he’s OK with it. Alex, I don’t think she’s OK with it because she knows that grandpa don’t like no one walking over him.”


Mike’s dad is happy to have them, he said.


“He’s been wanting us there for a long time because he enjoys our company and he uses my help all the time,” Mike said.


“It’s just, it’s a small place, but we’ve really got no other situation.”



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