JANESVILLE

Melissa Ostenson has been homeless with four children—all younger than 10—for many months.

She has no family or friends she can turn to.

“It’s me and the kids against the world right now. It’s hard. It’s really hard,” she said Wednesday at the House of Mercy shelter in Janesville.

Tears came to her eyes as she described how the children’s father left them and gives no support, and how she has tried to find a place to stay and child care so she can work.

She has been on a waiting list for the Section 8 low-income housing program for two years, she said.

“You try everything when you’re homeless to dig yourself out of the hole, for your children,” she said.

Now she feels hopeful as the House of Mercy is helping her get benefits through the W-2 program, Wisconsin’s version of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Months ago, Ostenson and the kids stayed at the House of Mercy shelter for 30 days, the maximum allowed.

She also has used hotel vouchers from local service agencies, and she stayed at the Twin Oaks shelter in the town of Darien for that shelter’s maximum of 60 days.

She was accepted back at the House of Mercy again about a month ago, and she’s still there because the shelter changed its policy last week, increasing stays to 60 days.

“I was so thankful. It was a real relief, especially having these four and worrying about where we were going to be next,” she said.

Ostenson’s family and other homeless families face a severe lack of affordable housing in Janesville, advocates for the homeless say.

House of Mercy clients have found it harder and harder to find their own apartments in 30 days, said shelter manager Tammie King-Johnson.

“We could not in good conscience exit people onto the streets with nowhere for them to go,” King-Johnson said.

The change brings House of Mercy in line with other shelters in the area, which already allow stays of 60 or 90 days, King-Johnson said.

Five families were nearing the 30-day limit when Mercy changed its policy, King-Johnson said.

The extra time will allow them a chance to explore housing in communities outside Janesville, she said.

The decision also will mean fewer openings for others who are homeless. House of Mercy is a 25-bed facility with a waiting list of about 100, with an average 35 to 40 of them high-risk homeless who are sleeping in cars or other places not fit for habitation, King-Johnson said.

The decision was based on a variety of factors, including the fact that the homeless population has changed in recent years, King-Johnson said.

More homeless people are elderly, sometimes frail or with medical problems, King-Johnson said.

They often are on limited incomes, can’t work because of health problems, can’t afford what they were paying in rent, and lack family or friends who can help them, she said.

King-Johnson said House of Mercy refers people to other shelters or to agencies that give hotel vouchers. But other shelters are full, and money for vouchers has run out.

Janesville’s ECHO charity is the major supplier of hotel vouchers in the city. It stopped giving out vouchers recently because of a lack of money, Executive Director Karen Lisser said.

ECHO is operating on a loan after running out of money, so it had to cut expenses, Lisser said.

A big donation or reimbursements ECHO is waiting for could change the situation, she said.

Some homeless people don’t have vehicles, so they can’t go to the parking lot the city of Janesville recently established to allow them to sleep in their cars. And sleeping in cars would worsen health problems for some, King-Johnson said.

Some people need to keep their medications refrigerated, she said.

Housing projects planned in Janesville should help with apartment availability, King-Johnson said, but that will take time.

Ostenson, meanwhile, said she would keep trying.

“Never give up,” said daughter Ieana, 5, as she cuddled next to her mom.

“That’s our family motto,” Ostenson said.

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