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Live By program gives La Crosse area people in recovery stepping stone to independence

Mitch can summarize his life in 23 feet.

Unfurled in the hallway outside his bedroom at the Live By apartments, a scroll of paper chronicles five decades of toxic relationships, battles with addiction and arrests:

“1969: Taken out of home.”

“30s: Drugs. Disorderly conduct. 13 times in jail.”

“40s: On the streets.”

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A “life line” charted out by Mitch and his psychiatrist shows a life plagued with hardships, including child abuse, alcoholism, prison time, and the death of his fiancé.

The lifeline has been a multi-month project for Mitch, 57, and his therapist, starting with the traumatic upbringing that led him down a troubled path, paving the way to his stay at Live By.

For the past 22 months, the recovering alcoholic has rented one of four bedrooms at the downtown area apartment. Established in September 2015 as a collaboration between La Crosse County and Catholic Charities, Live By offers a safe, supportive and drug- and alcohol-free environment for individuals struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues.

“Anyone could be in that place,” said Steve Burnette, director of disability services at Catholic Charities. “Something happens in your life and things aren’t quite as easy as they used to be — you need some help.”

Since the facility opened, 10 individuals ages 18 to 55 have resided there, paying a $430 monthly rent, either out of pocket or with county assistance, for a private bedroom, two communal bathrooms and kitchens and living room, as well as assistance from Live By program coordinator Barb Martin, who is on site from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays to help with transportation to AA meetings, counseling or doctor appointments, locating resources such as food pantries, learning how to use public transportation or applying for a driver’s license and advocating for the tenants during appointments. Basic living skills such as money management, housekeeping and cooking are covered, with each tenant responsible for meals and housekeeping.

“The idea of the program is to allow for individuals not quite ready to live on their own to get on that track,” Burnette said. “That’s their goal.”

The majority of tenants have been male, and the average stay is six months. Mitch, who moved in March 2016, has been Live By’s longest resident, having arrived under particularly difficult circumstances, recovering from a near fatal bout of double pneumonia and ingrained addiction.

Mitch’s dependence on alcohol started at age 9, and was born not from rebellion or escape but survival. The youngest of nine, Mitch experienced abuse from a young age, both at the hands of his parents and some of his siblings. One brother “tortured” him, burning him and shooting him with a pellet gun. Pantry cabinets were locked and the refrigerator chained shut, leaving a starving Mitch seeking nourishment from the only available source: partially consumed bottles of beer his parents left lying around.

“Half a bottle here, half a bottle there,” Mitch recalled. “That’s why it’s such a bear to tackle (my addiction).”

In 1969, Mitch and his siblings were removed from the home, and Mitch was shuffled among four temporary homes before being placed in rural foster home with one of his sisters. Conditions failed to improve.

“She beat me with paddles until they broke,” Mitch said of his foster mother, who would also abuse him with a pitchfork. “(Childhood) was just a rough period — there’s no way around it.”

At 14, he found respite with a caring couple, but after they suffered a miscarriage, the grief-stricken foster parents decided they could no longer care for him.

“It sucked it didn’t work out,” Mitch said. “I wish it would have.”

At 17, he moved in with an older sister, and shortly after his girlfriend became pregnant. At 18, his mother died, and a couple years later Mitch’s girlfriend, now wife, left him, taking their daughter with her, and Mitch was jailed for failing to pay child support.

Mitch remarried, having a son, but the relationship ended when he was sentenced for three years in prison for a crime he chooses not to elaborate on, saying, “I was just young and dumb.”

After his release, Mitch found work but resumed drinking, mixing in cocaine and other drugs and finding himself in and out of jail 13 times from age 30 to 40 for offenses including disorderly conduct, public intoxication or simply to detox. At 40, his alcohol consumption tapered but work accidents — shattering his heel during a roofing job and breaking his back while working in a restaurant kitchen — left him in persistent pain and struggling to keep a job. Mitch says settlements from his employers were minimal.

Homeless on and off for several years, he spent nights in the woods during the summer and at the Salvation Army in winter. A bright spot came when he met Yvonne Boehme in his early 50s. Sleeping on a bench downtown, Boehme was without shelter herself. The pair fell in love and became engaged when tragedy struck in December 2012. Crossing West Avenue after leaving the Warming Shelter, Boehme was struck be a vehicle and died a day later. The loss hit Mitch deeply, leaving him depressed, anxious and turning to alcohol for comfort.

Mitch was living in housing sponsored by Couleecap when he became deathly ill in 2014, contracting double pneumonia, exacerbated by his drinking. He was transferred to UW Health for intensive care that spanned several months. Upon his release, social workers recommended he be placed in a nursing home. It was then he came to Live By, still fuzzy from his pain medications and undergoing a wave of emotions.

“As much as I think it would be a relief (not to be in nursing home), he was with strangers in a new situation,” Martin said. “He came with nothing — all his things were thrown out when he was in the hospital. People don’t move in here with an apartment full of stuff — they start over.”

While the situation was an adjustment, Mitch felt immediately welcomed by his fellow tenants, with one greeting him with an exclamation of “Welcome home!”

“That felt nice,” Mitch said. “Everyone was really decent.”

Mitch shares an occasional meal and frequent chats with his fellow tenants, but spends much of his time in his room, coloring, watching TV, listening to music and playing with his hamster. Like many of Live By’s tenants, Mitch is on Social Security Disability and is not working, but regularly spends time out in the community, frequenting the Salvation Army to check in with friends and to let employees know he’s doing OK.

In AA for the past decade, he regularly attends meanings, as well as therapy, where he works through the grief of losing Yvonne and his alcoholism.

Still coping with health issues, Mitch has regular doctor appointments and at times asks Martin to accompany him as an advocate, finding the visits stressful. Some tenants elect to have Martin come with them to attend meetings or acquire food at Coulee Council on Addictions, finding it less intimidating to seek help with a partner. Martin is happy to lend her support but doesn’t keep tabs on tenants’ schedules.

“I’m not in charge of their day,” Martin noted. “It’s about them taking the initiative to come to me if they need something. We’re trying to help them navigate until they get their own place.”

Live By tenants are free to come and go as they please and to have guests, and while Martin says people have remained mostly respectful of the rules in the apartment, temptations remain beyond the doors of Live By and relapses happen.

“We understand that individuals here have struggles,” Martin said. “It would be naive to think they aren’t ever (relapsing).”

Mitch is honest about his ongoing addiction, saying December is always hard as he mourns Yvonne. He drank over Christmas but was able to regain control quickly.

“His alcohol use is almost nonexistent compared to when he came here,” Martin said. “He’s come a long way. He drank for so long that it’s his go-to coping skill. The fact that he hasn’t been to jail in years and is maintaining an apartment is a success.”

During his stay at Live By, Mitch has learned accountability and responsibility, having saved enough money to fully decorate his room, showing up to his doctor appointments, keeping his food supply stocked and gaining almost two years of rental experience. Tenants are in charge of the length of their stay, and Martin believes Mitch is ready to live on his own. Only one Live By tenant has returned for an additional stay — the others are “all in good living situations.”

Mitch is unsure when he will leave, but after decades of moving in and out of homes and on and off the streets, he hopes his next address will be permanent. He is grateful for “Godsend” Barb, his therapist and simply to be alive.

“Every day above dirt is a good day for me,” Mitch said. “My health and my recovery are number one.”

Mitch feels prepared to succeed, and at the end of his timeline, in bold black marker, he has written his future:

“In the end this is the man I want to be: gained the respect of others. Respected others. Slayed the dragon — sober. Treated others as I want to be treated. Lived and loved for all. Tough, true survivor. Loves to laugh. Likes to look good.”

“It does show progression,” Mitch said, his eyes following the length of the paper. “Instead of beating myself up I look at this and go, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.”

top story
3 bad bugs our recent cold snap can help kill

The extended cold snap may felt like bad news, but there is an upside: It killed off some of the insects that harm our trees and crops.

Rob Venette directs the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pests Center at the University of Minnesota and is also a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Minnesota DNR 

An adult emerald ash borer. 

Q: One of the big invasive species that people talk about in Minnesota is the emerald ash borer. Could this cold snap be good news for the state’s ash trees?

A: I think it really depends on where you are in the state. It’s a mixed story in the metro where the invasion of the emerald ash borer really started.

We’ve been seeing temperatures in the minus 16 range, and unfortunately those temperatures are not cold enough to cause substantial impact.

We know that temperatures need to get down to around minus 20 in order to begin to kill that particular insect. When it gets to minus 20 we expect about 50 percent of the emerald ash borer to die.

But when you get up into northern Minnesota, that’s where those cold temperatures actually can begin to have an impact. When you’re getting temperatures that are approaching minus 30 then we see about 90 percent of emerald ash borer are likely to die.

Q: What other invasive insects in Minnesota could be affected by this cold?


Brown marmorated stink bug

A: There’s a new insect that showing up in the state, the brown marmorated stink bug. It’s actually been in parts of Minnesota since around 2010, but we’re seeing populations build pretty consistently in the Twin Cities metro.

That insect can only handle temperatures around minus 2. So it’s not a particularly winter-hardy insect but it has a unique biology in that it likes to come inside to spend the winter, much like the multicolored Asian ladybugs.

Q: I hear there’s a fruit fly that’s been bad for our berry crops. Is that going to be affected by the cold?

University of Florida 

Spotted-wing drosophila

A: That fly is the spotted-wing drosophila, and what we know is it’s not especially cold hardy if it gets down to around minus 4.

We expect about 95 percent of those insects to die, but this is an interesting insect in that it likes to find shelters — particularly underneath the snow. We haven’t had a lot of snow in the southern part of the state, so we don’t know if that kind of a protected environment is going to be available so there’s a good chance that some of those insect populations will be set back.

Q: What about our old favorites — mosquitoes and ticks. Are they affected?

A: They can be but they, too, have a long evolutionary history in dealing with the cold and so they’re frequently looking for these protected environments.

It’s interesting if you have just 4 to 5 inches of snow the temperature beneath that snow pack stays right around 32 degrees, so 32 would feel pretty good compared to a day like today.

Q: Even if there is a die-off of some of these invasive species, won’t they just come back in warmer years?

A: They can, but the advantage is for the people who have to manage these insects. It helps to buy them time. And in many cases an extra season makes a really big difference in terms of the cost of management and how effective that management can be.

Rory O'Driscoll, La Crosse Tribu 

Aquinas' Albert Flottmeyer, right, grapples with Central's Todd Werner during their 152-pound match during the sixth-annual MVC city duals at Logan High School.

top story
La Crosse County flirts with flu but avoids outbreak — so far


This might be a good time to build a wall on Wisconsin’s southern border — and make Illinois pay for it. Flu-like illnesses sweeping the country have hit the Land of Lincoln harder than the Badger State, so far — and a wall might keep the virus at bay, right?

Not necessarily. And, even though La Crosse County is faring better than it did last flu season, things could change in the blink of an eye, the shake of a hand or the spray of an uncovered sneeze, said Jo Foellmi, a public health nurse with the La Crosse County Health Department.

It wouldn’t be a joking matter if flu and related respiratory illnesses latched on harder.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it started creeping up, but I would be happy if it didn’t,” Foellmi said during an interview Wednesday.

mtighe / Wisconsin Department of Health Services 

Red states are experiencing widespread flu cases; yellow, including Wisconsin and Iowa, are logging moderate cases and green states, below baseline.

Nearly 30 deaths in California

The flu is slamming California harder than any other state, with nearly 30 deaths among people there who are younger than 65, but influenza-related cases have set off alarms in 46 states, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Included in that tally are Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, and the exceptions are Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Maine, according to CDC figures.

Minnesota cases are deemed below the baseline to sound an alarm, Wisconsin’s are described as moderate levels and Illinois, widespread. Actually, cases in the Gopher state are concentrated in metro areas — the Twin Cities in particular — but less pervasive in the Southeast, including Winona and Houston counties, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

“Locally, we are right about where we were last year,” including some hospitalizations that are typical during any flu season, Foellmi said.

Usually, La Crosse County logs about 20 flu-related hospitalizations a season, but “this year, we are up quite a bit,” Foellmi said. “I’m almost expecting 35 to 40.”

50 million died worldwide in 1918

Noting that, technically, the season has just begun, Foellmi hesitatingly mentioned the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu, which a CDC study labeled the “Mother of All Pandemics.”

Influenza killed up to 50 million people around the world that year — more than three times the number of people who were killed in World War I, according to the CDC. It afflicted more than 25 percent of the U.S. population and killed 675,000 Americans — sometimes drowning them in their own phlegm within three days.

This season, it appears that increasing numbers of people are going to their doctors and testing positive, so it also could be that more folks are experiencing fevers and respiratory problems, she said.

The flu virus runs in cycles from year to year, depending on its virulence, vaccine effectiveness and the numbers of people who get their shots, she said.

“In 2015, it was awesome — we had only nine hospitalizations,” she said. “Last year, we were hit hard, with 86 flu-related hospitalizations, but that includes the first few months of the 2016-17 season.”

It’s not as if area residents are being diligent about rolling up their sleeves, according to research that county public health nurse Bryany Weigel completed in a run-through of the Wisconsin Immunization Registry.

Just 31 percent of county residents between the ages of 6 months and 100 years were up to date on their influenza immunizations as of Wednesday, Weigel said.

“This number depends on if all the area organizations that give flu shots have entered their data into the WIR system yet,” she said. “If they have, then it is 31 percent. If they haven’t, then this 31 percent is probably lower than the actual percentage.”

The county health department has used about 75 percent of the vaccines it had allotted for the season, and the department has entered all of its data in the registry, she said.

Some people may be balking. Mutations zapped the effectiveness of last season’s vaccine, which some people use as an excuse for skipping, along with claiming they don’t worry because they’ve never gotten the flu, Foellmi said.

Flu viruses have a knack for mutating quickly because “they have some awesome genes — in a bad way,” she said.

High hopes for the effectiveness of this season’s vaccine were deflated when its performance lagged, but not as badly as last year’s.

“On vaccinations, my take is whether the vaccine is poor or not, 35 percent or even 10 percent protection can prevent hospitalization, needing help breathing and an IV,” Foellmi said.

She also cited a community service aspect to getting a vaccine, because older people and people who are taking immunotherapy drugs or undergoing chemotherapy can be especially vulnerable.

“For immunities that are compromised, we always think that these people are just in hospitals, but they are in stores,” schools, libraries and other public places, she said.

mtighe / Wisconsin Department of Health Services 

Red areas of the map indicate widespread cases of flu, Wisconsin's yellow hue signals moderate and Minnesota's green suggests below baseline.

Duty to protect neighbors

Vaccinations “are not just for us, so we don’t get the flu, but for the community,” she said. “It’s to protect our neighbors.”

People who feel ill or have a runny nose should stay home, she said, adding, “We don’t want to be around you.”

Her husband, Terry, is a prime example of a former scofflaw she had to rehabilitate, Foellmi said with a somewhat victorious laugh.

“He never missed a day of work” but contracted the flu last year, she said, adding, “I could tell from 50 feet away, he was so sick and looked so bad.”

Of course, the fact that he had gotten the shot for one of the few times he had done so morphed him into an I-told-you-so flubird, she said.

“I told him, ‘No, you’d be worse, and you could be in the hospital,’” if he hadn’t gotten the shot, she said.

“Now, he is a firm believer,” even admonishing co-workers who are sick to go home, she said. “He is a fiend. When someone at work is sick, he tells them they shouldn’t be there.”

Foellmi hesitated to diagnose California from afar, speculating that people “are guessing, ‘This is sunny California, and who gets the flu,’ and the density of population” as another factor.

“There’s something to be said for living in a smaller community,” she said

Foellmi cited the need for speed in disinfecting a home if someone contracts an illness.

“When my husband got it, I sprayed everything — tables, doorknobs — he might have touched and used Lysol wipes on everything so none of the rest of us got it,” she said.

“And when he tried to come downstairs, I told him to get back up there,” she said, chuckling.

Forecast: Expect snow, then more cold weather

Your Thursday morning commute might be messy — especially west of the Mississippi River.

Our three-state region can expect 1 to 6 inches of snow beginning early Thursday, although the La Crosse area should see just an inch or two. Winona could see as much as 3 or 4 inches of snow.

The National Weather Service says roads may be slippery – especially in open areas and along ridgetops.

Visibility is expected to be less than a mile at times.

Once the snow ends, the cold returns.

After a high of 35 Thursday, the temperature will fall to near zero overnight.

The weather service predicts a high of 13 Friday with a low of minus 2; Saturday should only reach the single digits before heading to a low of 8 below zero.

And, Sunday’s high should reach 11 with a low of zero.