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Increased need creates growing wait list for Janesville homeless shelter

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Shelly Birkelo
September 22, 2012

— Shirley Van Horn said it’s gut wrenching to turn away homeless people when House of Mercy is full.

“The need just keeps increasing due to the economy, and I don’t see a decline on the horizon,” said Van Horn, executive director of the homeless center.

She said 40 families are on a list waiting.

Those in the shelter on Lincoln Street are allowed to stay no more than 30 days.

Mandi, a 33-year-old single mother with three children, said she has no housing options other than the shelter.

“This is the only program possibility for me, but it’s only temporary,” Mandi said.

She asked that her real name not be published.

Mandi works full-time and said she never imagined she would be homeless.

“I would have been fine and didn’t live beyond my means. I had money to go to (Wisconsin) Dells for the weekend with the kids, I saved a couple hundred dollars a month, and we’d go to the movies twice a month,’’ she said.

Earlier this year, her income was cut 30 percent.

“The bills started piling up, and I got behind on rent. If the kids needed shoes, I couldn’t buy food, and I had to put gas in the car to get to work. Then I started falling behind on everything,” Mandi said.

Mandi applied for food stamps and rent assistance but didn’t qualify. She sought child support but was awarded only $60 a month.

“Sometimes, I feel I need to quit my job—then I’ll get the help, but then I wouldn’t have any income and would lose my health insurance,” she said.

During the weeks between losing her apartment and getting into House of Mercy, Mandi and her youngest child stayed with a friend and shared a basement bedroom. Her two older children rotated between the homes of a half-dozen friends, leaving Mandi to worry about their safety.

Getting into House of Mercy gave Mandi a sense of relief, knowing she and her family had somewhere safe to live for a few weeks.

“My kids are happy, and we don’t have to worry about food or a place to do laundry,” she said.

But Mandi knows she has only three more weeks to figure out where she and her children will go next.

“I really don’t know how I’m going to make it,” she said, dabbing tears with a tissue.

Mandi is working with the case manager at the center, which also provides parenting classes, cooking classes, childcare and family programs.

Christin, another woman at the shelter with her family, had never been homeless until recently.

“I feel like I’ve failed my kids because I can’t provide our own house,” the 32-year-old mother of two said.

She asked that her full name not be published.

Christin worked full-time until she injured her knee. Now, she can work only part-time and takes college classes online. Her common-law husband hasn’t been able to work since he fell off a roof. He needs surgery.

The family is looking for an apartment while her husband searches for jobs, Christin said.

“If he doesn’t get a job or qualify for disability, I don’t know what we’re going to do,’’ she said.

Van Horn said the number of people on the House of Mercy wait list more than doubled from 2008 to 2011 and is still growing. The wait can be three weeks to three months.

“Sometimes, they just never get in,” Van Horn said.

Where they go, she isn’t sure.

“They’re probably staying with someone who doesn’t want them there and wants them out,” Van Horn said.

She knows of others who have lived in their vehicles or in tents while trying to find housing.

House of Mercy no longer offers three-week extensions allowed under special circumstances to the one-month stay limit.

“We did away with it because our waiting list was so incredibly long and we had to try to get to these other people to help. We had to figure out something to serve those who’d never been here before to be fair,” Van Horn said.

Even so, Van Horn has reasons for wanting to reinstate the extension policy.

“Our statistics show it makes a difference in whether they go into stable housing.”



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