Homeless woman and her cat are living in a sport utility vehicle
The Poor Among Us
This is the latest installment in a series of occasional stories on homelessness and poverty in Janesville.
The stories will report on homelessness as it affects families, employment, transportation and even the minds, moods and souls of the homeless. The series also will examine how poverty manifests itself in Janesville.
We plan to explore the issues from the street level and examine how social services are working—or not working—for people in need.
JANESVILLE As shoppers trekked across the frozen Wal-Mart parking lot on a cold Monday morning, Patricia Thomas was waking up in her SUV.
Thomas’ eyes, instantly alert, darted to the left and right. She rolled down the window of her Chevrolet Blazer, pulled a thin blanket over her vinyl coat and wiped a hand across her face.
On the passenger seat lay Thomas’ companion, a snow white, 14-year-old cat named Tasha.
Tasha rolled over on a folded blanket, blinked his eyes—one yellow, one cloudy blue—and stretched open a huge front paw with eight claw-tipped toes.
“See how many toes? Twice as many as normal. He’s a very unique cat,” Thomas said, smiling at Tasha.
Thomas, 62, doesn’t smile much except when talking about Tasha. For more than a year, the unemployed woman and her cat have lived in the red Blazer.
Thomas and Tasha share resources, two front seats and a complicated web of circumstances that keep them on the move from town to town, parking lot to parking lot.
Whether it’s a catch-22 or a self-imposed exile, Thomas and Tasha are a pair in limbo. They’re alone together.
Thomas said she lost her town of Dane home and five-acre property to foreclosure after losing her job at a Madison factory and then at FedEx between 2006 and 2008.
Thomas was a lifelong Dane County resident who worked at factories and package-handling facilities all her adult life. She said her only income now is just over $1,000 a month in Social Security disability insurance.
She’s given up looking for work, and she’s been in Janesville, staying in local parking lots, mainly because the police here leave her alone. She said people seem kinder than in larger cities where she has been homeless, including Madison.
Thomas’ goal is to save up money to buy a modest house in the $60,000 to $80,000 range, which she believes she could afford on her income. Until then, she’s choosing to stay homeless with Tasha—either in the Blazer or at a homeless shelter.
Trouble is, Thomas can’t find a homeless shelter in Rock County.
She’s unwilling to part with Tasha by giving the cat to a pet shelter or a foster family.
Two shelters Thomas has contacted, House of Mercy in Janesville and Sparrow’s Nest in Beloit, won’t take her in—mainly because of Tasha. Both organizations have strict no-pet policies, said House of Mercy Director Shirley Van Horn and a volunteer coordinator at Sparrow’s Nest who would only identify himself as John.
Sparrow’s Nest doesn’t allow pets because of liability and because the shelter doesn’t have enough room to accommodate animals, John said.
Van Horn said House of Mercy, which offers temporary housing to families, doesn’t allow pets because some shelter guests might be allergic to them. She said House of Mercy is in talks with a local nonprofit that might provide temporary foster services for animals owned by homeless people staying in shelters.
But that wouldn’t help Thomas because she’s unwilling to give up Tasha for even a short time.
“People who own a pet and then just throw them away are irresponsible. I wouldn’t do that to Tasha. Never,” Thomas said.
She said she’ll keep Tasha the rest of the cat’s life, and she’ll likely never get another pet.
“This has been hell on me and him. A car is no place to live,” Thomas said.
Another shelter Thomas contacted, Hands of Faith in Beloit, wouldn’t house her and Tasha because it only accepts families and people with dependents, Director Jeff Hoyt told The Gazette.
A cat doesn’t count as a dependent. That’s blistering irony to Thomas, who said she sacrifices a lot to pay for food, litter, veterinarian care and medication for Tasha, who she said has pain and limited mobility because of arthritis.
Thomas said she spends $60 a month just for pet arthritis medicine, which she injects into Tasha daily. Thomas said she’s stubborn about socking away all she has left in an attempt to get a loan for a permanent home.
Her insurance pays for a number of medicines she must take for diabetes and high blood pressure. But she doesn’t leave enough aside to eat well herself.
“It’s garbage I eat from bargain stores. Chips, things like that,” Thomas said.
Recently, she said a Janesville Realtor steered her toward PATH, a federally funded program through Rock County that offers social services and locates permanent housing for homeless people with mental illnesses or drug and alcohol dependencies.
Thomas said she doesn’t use drugs or alcohol, but she has struggled with depression and anxiety her whole life and currently isn’t being treated. She said she developed a fear and distrust of people from years of physical and sexual abuse as a child.
PATH paid to put up Thomas and Tasha at a Janesville motel during a spate of frigid weather a few weeks ago, said Kent Hubbard, supervisor of outpatient counseling for PATH in Rock County.
He said it was critical to get Thomas and her cat out of her vehicle because the weather had become dangerous.
Hubbard wouldn’t specifically discuss Thomas’ case, but he acknowledged that PATH ended services for Thomas when caseworkers learned she had access to financial resources.
He said Thomas’ circumstances are fairly common, although he said it’s relatively rare for a pet to be a main driver in the choice to remain homeless.
“It’s not unusual that some choose not to use some resources that are available to them.
“Maybe they’re trying to save up some money for a specific plan, and they’re willing to be in a shelter or live in a vehicle to do that,” Hubbard said.
Thomas said mental illness and substance abuse are common among the homeless. He estimated that those are the main factors in about 30 percent of homeless cases.
Thomas said her mistrust of people only grew by what she calls mistreatment by police and a string of landlords in her recent years of joblessness and poverty. She says she no longer wants to deal with landlords and she's become soured with living in rental properties.
Until October of last year, she and Tasha were living in a heated warehouse in Sun Prairie where a landlord allowed her to stay and store belongings from her foreclosed home.
Then, Thomas said, area police told her she couldn’t live in the warehouse because doing so violated city rules.
Thomas said she moved out, put her belongings in Madison storage units and began living in her Blazer with Tasha. Then her things started disappearing from storage. Next, she said, she lost access to the units. She couldn’t say whether it was for nonpayment.
“They glued the locks or something. It cost me $2,000 to get the stuff and move it to another storage place. So I was back to square one,” Thomas said.
Thomas hopes her story will prompt someone to provide a service where homeless people can live with their pets—at least long enough to get on their feet.
It’s a hope Thomas shares for herself and Tasha each night as she falls asleep in her SUV with the feline nestled under blankets, against her chest.
“I’m choosing to live in a car for both of us,” she said. “Tasha’s the only thing that keeps me going ahead. I can’t leave him. He’s old, and he needs somebody to take care of him.”
Thomas dreams of a home in the country, just like the one she had in the town of Dane. Thomas could stretch her legs once in a while, and Tasha could live out his days sleeping in the grass, not on the front seat of an SUV that needs repairs.
“Maybe I can get a place, but probably not in the country,” she said. “That’ll probably never happen again.”