Trish Brown faces eviction from her Milton home, adding to her other chaotic life circumstances. Shortly after paying rent with aid she received from the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance program, Brown received a notice of tenancy termination, meaning she could be evicted on the last day of August.
Brown described her life over the past few years as a series of hardships leaving her spiraling in a constant state of panic and anxiety. After leaving her job as an accounts payable clerk during a stressful time with her ex-partner, Brown said she was unable to find steady work. Currently, she works temporary construction jobs. Much of the money she earns is spent paying bills and child support, so covering her rent is a struggle.
In the five years since she lost custody of her son, Brown says she feels a sense of helplessness. “I haven’t been able to be a part of his life,” she said.
And with her son turning 18 soon, Brown feels cut out of the next step in his life.
“It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming,” she said.
Now with the possibility of being kicked out of her home, Brown says the anxiety has become even more exasperating.
“I guess I’m just maxed out,” she said.
According to Brown, the notice she received cited no specific reason for the termination of her lease. In the past she was late paying rent, but with WERA aid she was able to at least pay. With this latest development, she fears a descent into homelessness is inevitable.
Brown’s landlord could not be reached for comment.
She is not alone.
Since the pandemic ravaged the country and brought the economy nearly to a halt, many faced decreased wages or unemployment, which put a strain on household finances. At the peak of the crisis, the unemployment rate in Wisconsin spiked to 14.8% in April 2020 and only started to rebound to pre-pandemic rates over the past seven months. Despite the uptick in jobs and a more optimistic outlook, remnants of hard times linger.
Michael Basford, director of the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s interagency Council on Homelessness, said the fallout of the economic downturn has left tens of thousands of Wisconsin households in untenable situations.
“The closing of businesses and loss of work opportunities have been major factors behind these struggles,” he said.
Despite a Centers for Disease Control-directed moratorium on evictions in effect in 2020, many landlords used an exception to turn out tenants who violated their lease agreements. In April, The Gazette reported anecdotal cases in which landlords raise issues that they previously overlooked but are now using as justifications for eviction.
On Aug. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the Biden administration’s eviction moratorium, ruling the CDC had exceeded its authority. The ruling puts the fate of hundreds of thousands of renters nationwide in jeopardy. It remains to be seen how soon landlords will file evictions for back rent owed or whether local governments will enact their own moratoriums.
While there are resources for struggling renters—such as Janesville’s Everyone Cooperating to Help Others (also known as ECHO) and the WERA program that has assisted Brown—increased demand has led to long wait lists. Community Action, the organization that distributes WERA funds, had to increase staff due to this demand.
Community Action’s community programs director Elizabeth Knapp-Spooner said her organization is working with roughly 850 people in need of housing assistance. That caseload has resulted in longer processing times.
For Brown, the future is unknown. Over a week has passed since her tenancy was terminated, but she plans on remaining in her home until she is either evicted or another opportunity presents itself.
Ultimately, she wants to raise awareness somehow to rally support behind people like herself who are struggling, but don’t want to be seen as charity cases.
“I don’t want money, I don’t want a handout, she said. “I just want someone to help me.”
The Rock County Jail continues to battle a COVID-19 outbreak.
As of Tuesday, 19 inmates of the Rock County Jail were isolated after testing positive for the disease, said Capt. Kim Litsheim, assistant jail administrator.
Their symptoms are minor, Litsheim said, and none of the inmates has required hospitalization or transfer to the jail’s medical unit.
The jail had seen few case in recent months, but tests on Aug. 20 detected 10 positive cases. Some of those inmates have since been released.
The total number of positive cases since Aug. 20 is 27, including the initial 10, Litsheim said.
Twenty-five inmates were quarantined as of Tuesday because they had been in close contact with an infected person, Litsheim said.
Litsheim said inmates had been moved to different units to free up units as quarantine space.
“I foresee this is something we’re going to be in for the long haul,” Litsheim said.
Jail administrators monitor COVID-19 hospitalizations, and a worsening of that situation could prompt more changes at the jail, Litsheim said.
Officials had kept the jail at less than half of its capacity during much of the pandemic, but about two months ago, with concern easing, the jail began keeping inmates who previously had been released with court dates or quarantined in their homes with monitoring anklets.
The change increased the jail population from 212 to numbers hovering near 300. That’s still well below capacity, which is around 500.
The jail continues to offer vaccinations to inmates, with 21 vaccinated on Tuesday, Litsheim said. The free clinic HealthNet of Rock County has been providing the inoculations.
The Gazette reviewed a small amount of surveillance video from the jail last week and saw some correctional officers not wearing masks. Litsheim said staff need reminders to mask up. Inmates are provided masks, officials have said, but they often don’t wear them.
Sheriff Troy Knudson said he hasn’t surveyed his staff because of privacy concerns, but the jail nurse told him that the vast majority of the jail staff is vaccinated.
“At this point, we have decided not to issue a (vaccination) mandate for our staff,” either deputies or correctional officers,” Knudson said.
Knudson said if the state or federal government mandates vaccinations, “that would be something we would have to address.”
Knudson said the recent surge in COVID-19 cases locally, driven by the virus’ delta variant, had persuaded more people to get the vaccine.
“I’m hoping we’re going to be able to end up being nearly completely vaccinated as a result of what’s already been done and as a result of this surge,” Knudson said.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends vaccination for jail staffs “who are at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace for various reasons, including being in close proximity (less than 6 feet) to other people.”
“Outbreaks in correctional and detention facilities are often challenging to control,” the CDC says, because of the difficulty in maintaining distance between people and limited space for isolation or quarantine.
Litsheim noted the jail was not designed for a pandemic, although air-cleaning equipment with ionization technology has been installed. The jail also has devices that are said to kill germs by flooding spaces with ultraviolet light, and those devices have been used more frequently of late.
Jail officials have said that because jail inmates come from the community, the COVID-19 cases behind bars reflect the community at large.
Vernon H. Butzler
Dennis Paul Fryar
Judith A. (Paye) Heffron
James R. “Jim” Klein
Scott A. Kruckenberg
Eric Scott Nielson
Ernst Frank Neumann
The Walworth County Fairgrounds manager said Tuesday that his organization hired Honduran workers whose work visas were not valid, as federal investigators discovered.
However, the Walworth County Agricultural Society did not know the workers’ papers were not in order or that three workers were abused, the society’s Larry Gaffey told The Gazette on Tuesday.
“We are victim of this whole thing, too,” Gaffey said. “It’s just really kind of sad.”
Society officials have not been charged.
An affidavit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin said the workers were coerced into staying on the fairgrounds almost all the time, and when they visited local stores, they were watched.
The workers had been recruited to work in landscaping in Michigan, which is what their visas indicated, but after their flights landed in Chicago, they were immediately driven to Elkhorn, where they were paid less that what they were promised, according to the affidavit. When the workers complained, they were threatened with deportation.
The Gazette reported Tuesday that another Honduran on a temporary work permit, who oversaw the workers, has been indicted in U.S. District Court on charges of conspiracy to hire people outside the United States with false promises about their employment, illegally recruiting laborers, holding them by use of threats and abuse, and harboring workers for financial gain.
Denis L. Rodriguez Oyuela, 37, pleaded not guilty to the charges Aug. 25.
Gaffey said Rodriguez Oyuela oversaw the migrant workers for the agricultural society last year and this year.
The workers were first brought in last year because local laborers couldn’t be found to do the work. The arrangement worked well, Gaffey said.
The name of the consultant that organized workers’ employment at the fairgrounds was blacked out in the court document.
Gaffey said his organization hired the consultant to complete the complex paperwork needed to hire the workers and bring them to the United States but didn’t suspect anything was amiss.
In a written statement Gaffey said the wage the workers earned—$9.50 an hour, according to the affidavit—is set by the U.S. government to protect American workers.
“We are frustrated that international workers brought to work at the fairgrounds were victims of what may best be described as a bait-and-switch,” the statement reads.
“We are also angry that a consultant we engaged to make sure everything was done legally and correctly appears to have at least sidestepped rules and cut corners. That’s not how we do business.”
The statement concluded, “We voluntarily agreed to exceed the prevailing wage when we heard the workers had been promised a different compensation.”