Divorce was the event that sent Susan Siemens into homelessness and, eventually, into the arms of ECHO.
She was sleeping at friends’ homes. A friend suggested ECHO as the place to start putting her life back together.
“ECHO was a blessing to me. They’re a blessing to our community. Every town should have an ECHO,” said Siemens, who rarely needs ECHO’s help anymore and serves on the ECHO board of directors.
The church-supported charity, which is much more than Janesville’s main food pantry, celebrated 50 years of helping the community Saturday with a block party, where hot dogs, fun, friends and a cooling rainstorm combined to make for a joyful time.
Siemens said the people at ECHO—its faithful volunteers and paid staff—are special: “A lot of times you go somewhere and the people just don't care much about their clients, … but they care and do everything they can do help. I think our community is a better place because of ECHO.”
Siemens, a graphic artist who holds down two part-time jobs to supplement her Social Security income, gives back to the agency by designing its monthly newsletter.
“They asked me to be on board. I don’t know why,” she said. “I feel very honored.”
ECHO, she said, was one of the stepping stones she needed to get to where she is today.
Making ends meet
High Street in front of the ECHO office was blocked off for the party. Among dozens of attendees was Barbara Werfal, who lives with her daughter and four grandchildren. She has relied on ECHO for about 20 years to keep them housed and fed.
Her daughter cares for a son with autism. No one in the household has a car. Social Security and disability payments keep a roof over their heads.
Werfal, 67, used to get clothing from ECHO as she raised her children. She would bring the clothes back when the kids outgrew them. Now she brings her plastic bags to ECHO, the only thing she can afford to donate, she said.
Without ECHO, “I don’t know. The fresh fruits and vegetables, we just wouldn’t have them,” Werfal said. “You can afford just so much, and they’re expensive.”
Another attendee was Darlene Coleman, who lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her two children, ages 4 and 1, her boyfriend and two other adults—one on disability--and another child. Only one of them works. She’s been coming to ECHO since 2002.
She and her boyfriend rely on disability payments. They receive $200 a month in food assistance. It’s hard to make ends meet, she said. Some months, she can’t afford enough diapers. ECHO helps with that, too.
“Without ECHO, we’d be struggling with food every month,” Coleman said.
No place to go
Housing has become a bigger need over the years, and ECHO has expanded services to help people from losing their apartments and supplying money for the homeless to get off the streets, ECHO Executive Director Karen Lisser said.
Lisser said the low apartment-vacancy rate in the city means people stay homeless for longer than they used to. ECHO gets federal money for emergency housing assistance, but it will have to give some of the money back because ECHO can’t find enough apartments.
ECHO also works with the chronically homeless with mental-health problems through the federal Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program.
The new service started July 1. Holly Anderson is ECHO’s new “housing system navigator,” who helps homeless clients find homes. She has already helped two people do that.
Anderson can also connect people to supports such as Social Security, federal food assistance and local agencies such as the YWCA.
“We need more affordable housing, but when people make only $600 to $800 a month, it’s hard to find something they can afford.”
Services have expanded over the years along with the number of clients, Lisser said. Last year, ECHO filled food orders for 19,869 people, distributed 1.42 million pounds of groceries, served 850 Christmas dinners and delivered school supplies to 516 children.
Siemens said she has seen many people through the years who have come for help and then became self-sufficient.
For some, “It takes a long time once you’re plunged into poverty to get out,” she said.
ECHO encourages clients to improve their lives, Siemens said, and children are a special focus, with seasonal programs that provide Christmas gifts and school supplies.
“Our town is a safer town to live in than lot of towns (because of ECHO)," she said.