The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 22, 2013

No Direction Home, Day 3: Mankato family knows road to homelessness

Mankato family knows road to homelessness

By Robb Murray

---- — MANKATO — For Scott Hieronimus and Tina Whitby, the journey to homelessness, they say, was built firmly on a foundation of bad luck.

“I went from losing my $50,000 a year job to being a temp,” Scott Hieronimus said.

He was a production specialist, someone who built testing stations for the products built at a company called Emerson.

“I lost that job when a lady accused me of looking at her inappropriately,” he said.

Around the same time, Tina lost her job at an assisted-living facility in Shakopee called Emerald Crest.

“I was at Emerald Crest for five years when I got let go,” she said.

They moved to St. Peter when Scott got a job at Alumacraft. But Scott lost that job, too.

“Five or six of us got let go the same day,” he said.

Then the real struggle began. And to ward off eviction, they started selling their stuff.

First it was Tina’s 2003 Ford Windstar van. Then Scott's shotgun. (The two are avid hunters and have a series of deer with impressive racks on the walls of their residence.) Then it was Scott's 1996 Chevy Silverado pickup. Then the boat. Then the Waverunner.

“We sold it all to avoid being homeless,” Scott said.

But eventually, not even selling their possessions could save them. And in June, their St. Peter landlord threatened to evict. They tried to get help from a few area agencies, they say, but found little. So they called Theresa House to find emergency housing for them and their two kids, ages 7 and 3.

“Theresa House took us in, and that place was very wonderful to us,” Scott said.

He admits there was a little bit of swallowing some pride to take up residence in a homeless shelter.

“It wasn't the nicest thing to have to admit. I was used to making $20 an hour, then you try to live on $8 an hour? It's hard,” he said. “But it wasn't, you know, a bunch of bums like you see on TV.”

The couple says the staff at Theresa House helped them look for work. For Scott, it’s going to be difficult. Because he has a drunken-driving conviction and lost his license, he needs Tina to drive him to work.

In turn, the couple have helped the shelter. They’ve pitched in around the house and, Scott said, he cut up a tree that had fallen in the yard.

He’s working through a temp agency at Mankato Ford. Tina has found work, too. And after going to the Minnesota Valley Action Council’s offices in Mankato and seeking assistance through Blue Earth County’s social services, they were able to get enough help to find an apartment near downtown.

Now that they’re in their new place, they want to get back on their feet quickly so that they don’t need to use social services anymore. Like most people who need the services, they’d much rather be in a position to not need them.

“We were getting food stamps and cash assistance, but once we got our jobs, that all went away. We do still have medical through the county,” Tina said. “I make $11 an hour and I can afford to keep food in the house. There are a lot of people who need it more than we do right now. I don't want to take away from someone else.”

Scott said the experience has changed his opinion about what it means to be homeless.

“My understanding of a shelter was that it was a place where bad people go who don't want to work. My experience has been there are a few of those, but most of them are good people,” he said.

Tina says she was changed, too.

“I think I’m not as judgmental, not as likely to see a homeless person on the street and say, ‘Why don’t you go get a job?’” she said. “And I used to be that person a little bit.”

Through their experience at Theresa House, the pair say they’ve made friends. They also believe their lives are on the upswing. They’re hoping to save up enough money while living in their Liberty Street apartment to someday be able to afford their own home, one with a yard big enough for their kids to play in.