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Employment tops community concerns: Homeless task force looks for priorities

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Stacy Vogel
January 18, 2008
— Ester Smith got sick and fell behind on her bills after her landlord refused to fix a mold problem in her apartment.

Keegan Stetler moved in with her older sister after she turned 18 and is now completing her senior year of high school.


Marquisha Cobb is a teen parent struggling to get an education.


They all are people the Homeless Intervention Task Force seeks to serve, and the task force heard from all three Friday.


Since its inception in 1996, the task force has held a special meeting every year to determine its priorities and hear from its clients. The task force is a coalition of several Rock County agencies, including Community Action, ECHO, the Janesville School District and Rock County Human Services.


This year, as last year, clients listed employment as their No. 1 concern on a survey distributed by participating agencies.


The task force compiled 619 responses from people who use community services. They found 12 percent of the respondents were homeless, and 28.4 percent had been homeless in the last year.


Besides employment, utility payment, dental care and health care topped the list of concerns.


The task force uses the survey to help determine how to use its resources, Chairwoman Sarah Williams said.


“It’s easy as a service provider to think we know what we need to do, but we don’t,” she said.


Clients and service providers at Friday’s meeting supplemented survey results. They discussed issues that weren’t addressed on the survey, such as the need for shelter for teens living on their own.


Ann Forbeck, homeless education program coordinator for the Janesville School District, said many teenagers that have run away or been kicked out of their homes end up “couch-hopping,” staying with friends and relatives.


“For many, many of our high school students … they have to depend on the kindness of others,” she said.


MaryBeth Aldrich with Community Action pointed out that a lack of educational opportunities plagues those in danger of homelessness. More than 40 percent of the survey respondents didn’t have high school diplomas.


“That link is making a big difference between being self-sufficient and not being self-sufficient,” she said.


The task force will tally the client surveys and surveys filled out at Friday’s meeting to determine its priorities in 2008, said Marc Perry, director of planning and development for Community Action.


The group also will have a more accurate count soon of how many people need its help. Thursday, volunteers will conduct the twice-yearly homelessness count by combing the county overnight to find people living on the streets.


The Rock County Homeless Intervention Task Force heard testimonials from three people it’s trying to serve.


Here are their stories:


? Ester Smith, 53, Janesville


Smith couldn’t get her landlord to fix a mold problem in her apartment. The mold aggravated her asthma, and she missed work because of doctor visits and fell behind on her bills.


“I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I didn’t know who to turn to.”


Eventually, Smith turned to ECHO. The agency connected her to the Rock County Health Department and came out itself to inspect the apartment. It advised her she could withhold rent if the landlord continued to ignore the problem.


“If it hadn’t been for ECHO, somewhere for me to turn, at least a starting point, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” she said. “I probably would’ve been evicted and still owe them money.”


? Keegan Stetler, 18, Janesville


Stetler has lived in 12 places as her mother moved her and her three siblings. Last year, they all ended up in her aunt’s basement, but that arrangement fell through when her mother and aunt disagreed over rent.


“It was just so many things on top of each other,” she said.


When Stetler turned 18, she moved in with her older sister and her sister’s boyfriend. She’s finishing her senior year at Parker High School and plans to attend UW-Rock County.


“I’d never heard of any of these organizations, except maybe ECHO,” she told the agency representatives. “I wish I’d heard of them.”


? Marquisha Cobb, 18, Beloit


Cobb moved out of her mother’s home in Chicago and lived with several friends as a teen. She got pregnant and moved to Beloit.


She’s now in Community Action’s Fresh Start program. She takes classes to earn her high school diploma and helps build homes, learning a valuable trade.


“Every day is a problem or struggle,” she said. “If I didn’t have (Community Action), I’d be on the streets with my baby.”


But Cobb said she wished resources weren’t so concentrated in Janesville and that they were easier to navigate.


“There’s a lot of programs I don’t know about,” she said.


—Stacy Vogel


CLIENT CONCERNS


Top seven challenges listed by clients of Rock County community agencies:


1. Employment—jobs that pay sufficient wages and benefits, 48.3 percent.


2. Utility payment assistance, 43.9 percent.


3. Dental care, 43.6 percent.


4. Health care, 39.6 percent.


5. Rent assistance over several months, 38.3 percent.


6. Help with knowing where to turn, 33.8 percent.


7. Affordable permanent housing, 32.5 percent.



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