One of Susan Fabian’s Christmas traditions is reflecting on the past year and checking her list of things to be thankful for.
Topping the list this year: her recent graduation from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the realization of an interrupted educational quest Fabian started in 1996.
Beyond that, “As a single mother of two, I’m thankful for the basics: a place to live, heat, food and a car,” the 34-year-old Onalaska woman said.
Those staples were elusive during a dark period when she was homeless after leaving a violent marriage, she said.
“I was in a domestically violent situation,” she said. “I decided to move out when it got out of hand. I just said no.”
Having moved with her then-husband from Montana to Onalaska in 2006, “without family and friends, I had no other choice but to go to the women’s shelter,” she said.
Fabian and her daughters, Jane, now 7, and Grace, 5, lived at the New Horizons shelter in La Crosse for three and a half months.
Working four part-time, low-paying jobs, she couldn’t afford housing, and no low-income options were available to her at the time, she said.
In Montana, Fabian had been a sales manager for an auto parts chain for nearly a decade, but she said her lack of a college degree foiled her search for better-paying jobs here. Still homeless, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to try to finish work on the degree she had started working on two decades before.
“It was a tumultuous time, trying to keep life stable for my daughters,” she said. “I was getting desperate to find housing in the La Crosse area I could afford.”
Enter Couleecap, a nonprofit community action program headquartered in Westby with a mission to fight poverty and promote self-sufficiency for residents of Crawford, La Crosse, Monroe and Vernon counties.
Couleecap’s Transitional Supportive Housing Program accepted Fabian’s application for two years of subsidized housing and provided a case manager who helped her regroup.
“Supportive housing was an answer to my prayers,” Fabian said. “It was a perfect fit for somebody like me to start my life again.”
Fabian, who said she took out loans and earned $15,000 in scholarships with her 3.75 GPA at UW-L, found that those investments paid off when she graduated Dec. 16 with a degree in women, gender and sexuality issues, with a minor in sociology.
She still works several part-time jobs to make ends meet, but she was able to leave Couleecap’s support programs this fall.
She plans to seek a master’s in public service at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and find a public service job in poverty policies to help women out of dire circumstances like those she faced.
“At the women’s shelter, I experienced being alone, isolated and scared and at the mercy of other people,” she said. “It was the first time I was not able to take care of myself.
“My conclusion was that a lot of women out there are like me, and I want to follow that passion from my experience to help with low-income programs for single moms.
“I’m just thankful and blessed that Couleecap helped,” she said. “My big goal is to help. I’m showing my gratitude in my actions.“
Couleecap Executive Director Grace Jones cites Fabian as an example of the need for her agency’s programs and a poster child to debunk stereotypes about the poor.
“Her courage and perseverance are amazing,” Jones said. “Too many people think low-income people are lazy, mooching, just cruising, when nobody was working harder than she was on her education and to provide for her family.”
The need is great, Jones said. She cites the statistics that four shelters in La Crosse (The Salvation Army, New Horizons, YWCA Ruth House and the Warming Center) serve an unduplicated 1,140 individuals in 2011.
This year, head counts at those four shelters passed 1,000 early in December, she said.
That tally doesn’t include the unsheltered or those in Couleecap housing programs, Jones said.
“The numbers are staggering for a community this size,” she said. “The resources are limited, and waiting lists are long.”
Couleecap’s services start with the basics, such as food, clothing and heating fuel costs, Jones said. The next level includes helping 90 homeless families a year with transitional housing and subsidized apartments, she said.
The agency also provides assistance for people to rehabilitate and renovate homes, buy a house, purchase a car and start a business.
“It’s a continuum of emergency services and survival issues to help people become self-sufficient,” Jones said.