April 21, 2003
Section: Main News Page: 1A
Iowa mom’s story ends mysteriously
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
Storm Lake, Ia. – Elin Stewart didn’t want a million-dollar life -just a happy ending. She didn’t get either.
Last October, Stewart’s living conditions were described in a Des Moines Register report on the condition of unregulated rental housing in rural Iowa. The Register found Stewart and her 11-year-old daughter, Sammi, living in bleak conditions. The two shared a run-down house with three dogs in rural Buena Vista County.
Stewart’s life -and now her death -symbolizes the struggle of thousands of Iowans living on the fringes of homelessness. Their housing problems often are compounded by substance abuse, depression and sickness.
“It’s like an onion, and you keep peeling back the layers,” said Amy Knudsen, associate director for the Iowa Coalition for Housing and the Homeless. “It’s representative of a lot of people in Iowa. . . . Is this the way someone should live and die?”
The 47-year-old single mother was found dead April 12 in her Storm Lake apartment. Police say they won’t know for several weeks how she died. Police officials say they are aware Stewart had health problems, including a blood disease.
Stewart lived in Iowa only a year, and in that time, she experienced life without a working toilet, heater or operable faucets. In that year, her health was a mess, she was often in pain, and her only child was taken from her.
She couldn’t afford what others consider necessities -new clothes, a bed, a Christmas tree. She had $750 a month in prescription-drug costs for her blood disease and needed surgery for a broken foot.
Still, Stewart rarely spoke bitterly. “I’m a survivor. I’m just as happy being broke,” she said.
Since the article appeared last year, Stewart had kept in contact with The Des Moines Register. Her letters and phone calls reveal the resilience of a woman who withstood one heartache after another.
In a Feb. 20 letter, Stewart said she had found a great support system in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Life is so much better now,” she wrote. “I am healthier mentally and physically and may have a p-t job.”
Less than two months later, Stewart’s body gave in -or Stewart gave up.
“We just don’t know what happened,” her mother, Martha Foote, said from her Virginia home.
Police and firefighters showed up at Stewart’s door around 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday after neighbors reported that her smoke detector was going off.
Firefighters found Stewart unresponsive and could not revive her. The smoke was caused by a burned pizza in the oven. An autopsy showed that Stewart’s death was not related to the smoke.
Sammi was not at home at the time. She has been spending the past several months with a northwest Iowa foster family. Sammi will remain there at least until the school year has concluded, her grandmother said. Later, the young girl might join her grandmother and other relatives in Virginia.
Stewart’s death was a sad ending to a tragic life story. Friends say Stewart had seemed suicidal at times but had been more upbeat recently.
“She looked better than she ever had,” said a friend, Mike Stark. “I thought she was on her way uphill, but we don’t really know what was going on inside.”
On the outside, many things seemed better. Before winter hit, Stewart had moved into a Storm Lake apartment. She said it was a big improvement over her unheated, 440-square-foot rental house.
The Register article, she wrote, “opened up the hearts of several Iowans. Sam has gotten over $500 worth of new clothing and my pharmacy chose us as their adopted family this year.”
Before moving, Stewart had to get rid of at least two of her three dogs. She took her beagle to the Humane Society. She sold her golden retriever named Chantilly to Doug Dodge of Milford.
“It was like she was selling one of her kids,” Dodge recalled. “Here was a lady who life had just kind of kicked in the butt, yet she did not seem like a bitter person, and I don’t know why.”
Stewart reached a low point during the holidays, and something happened to trigger Sammi’s removal from the home. Stewart’s letters offer few details.
Stewart wrote that Sammi was in foster care “til I get my life back together, but she is on a farm with horses, sheep, goats, rabbits, dogs and a cat. Being Sammi, she has made a ton of friends.”
She said she wanted to be viewed as a good mom. “Hopefully, they didn’t see me as an unfit mother. You know I’m not, at least where love is concerned,” Stewart wrote.
She brought her daughter to Storm Lake, she said, in search of a life that reminded her of “Happy Days.” There was something calming about the lake and the open spaces.
That same feeling washed over her several years ago when she walked along a beach with her daughter. Stewart often said she coveted that kind of peacefulness in her everyday life.
In death, at least one wish will be granted: Elin Stewart’s ashes will be scattered on a California beach.
Copyright (c) The Des Moines Register. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.