This was part of a Des Moines Register series entitled “Bleak and Broken.” Tens of thousands of Iowans were living in substandard conditions in parts of the state where housing codes either don’t exist or fail to work. Hardest hit were rural areas.
This is Elin’s story.
October 13, 2002
Section: Main News
“We have everything we need”
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
Copyright (c) The Des Moines Register
Storm Lake, Ia. – Elin Stewart keeps telling herself she has found the perfect place.
She told herself this when her shower and faucets stopped working one night, and when murky sewage backed up into her bathroom one afternoon, and when her temporary toilet was a five-gallon bucket in the back yard.
“I’ve never been one for high-class living, not that I like living in dumps or anything, but I don’t mind a little inconvenience,” explains Stewart, 46. “I think this place is perfect.”
Stewart grabs another Doral from the cigarette pack and sinks deeper into the mustard-colored armchair that sits at the center of the nirvana she has created here. She knows her dream is looking more and more like a nightmare.
A social worker had been by after learning that Stewart and her 11-year-old daughter were living in a home without running water. The water pump had broken a couple weeks earlier.
The social worker didn’t like what she found in the tiny gray house: The home was a filthy mess, full of fleas and animal feces.
“Lies,” Stewart grumbles and flicks ashes into a tin can next to her threadbare armchair.
She assumes the worst. She fears the state will take away her daughter, Sammi, over a stupid water pump.
“It’s always been just me and her,” Stewart says.
The mother sits in the stale, smoky darkness of her 440-square-foot house and tries to think of a way out of this mess. Why, she wonders, can’t everyone else in this overly materialistic world see things the way she does? Why can’t they leave her alone?
It doesn’t occur to her, at least not yet, that moving out is an option.
“We have everything we need here,” Stewart says.
Yes, she repeats, she has found the perfect place.
She’ll stay here. She’ll fight this.
She has nothing to lose.
And she has everything to lose.
A new start in Iowa
The perfect life for Elin Stewart started unraveling in the middle of a July night, when the noisy water pump suddenly stopped pumping water and fell silent.
“Oh, crap, no water,” Stewart told herself.
It was the beginning of a month without showers, dishwater or a toilet that flushed.
It was a hassle, but Stewart would make do without water for a while. She planned to get the pump fixed, but what was the hurry?
“In frontier days, things were even worse,” she says.
Elin and Sammi moved from Virginia to their new home in Iowa around Easter, when the lake was still icy. They borrowed space heaters to keep the place warm. Stewart covered windows with bath towels and bed sheets.
The home belongs to Barbara Douglass, Stewart’s longtime friend from Storm Lake. Douglass says she called Stewart to suggest she move to Iowa for a needed change of pace. Douglass owned an empty house, and Stewart could stay for free.
“I promised her a long time ago that, `If anything ever goes wrong, man, you can count on me,’ ” Douglass says. “And here I am. I’m here for Elin.”
Stewart and Douglass met at an Arizona boarding school when they were teenagers. Years later, the two women still have a lot in common.
They have easygoing, laid-back personalities.
They both have medical problems -Stewart has a blood condition and asthma; Douglass has multiple sclerosis. Douglass is one of only a handful of people in the United States allowed to smoke marijuana legally. Her prescription, approved by the FDA, helps stop the sudden spasms of her disease.
Douglass thought the tiny house would be perfect for Stewart. And the two old friends could take care of one another.
Stewart agreed that the house had a lot to offer: A lakeshore just two blocks away. More than three acres for Sammi to play on and the dogs to roam.
The one-bedroom house is cramped -not even room for a kitchen table -but mother and daughter don’t seem to mind.
Stewart sleeps in the bedroom. The main room of the house does the work of three: kitchen, living room and Sammi’s bedroom. Sammi sleeps on a thin, stained mattress on the floor, just beneath the comforting glow of the television.
Three dogs share floor space on matted-down, mismatched carpet remnants.
To Stewart and Sammi, it felt like an adventure, even when the water pump stopped working in July.
When dirty dishes needed washing, Stewart filled cardboard boxes and took the dishes to the neighbor’s garden hose.
She sent Sammi to friends’ houses for sleepovers, and reminded her daughter to take a bath while she was away. Stewart, meanwhile, took occasional sponge baths with the garden hose.
When they needed to flush, they poured water from plastic jugs into the toilet.
“It’s kind of a pain in the butt, but you do what you have to do,” Stewart says. “I’m a survivor.”
They drank more soda pop and less water. They cooked canned foods and ate off paper plates.
Stewart viewed the water-pump problem not as a catastrophe, but a minor setback.
“I love it here,” she says.
Stewart is pretty sure Sammi is happy, too. After all, washing dishes in a sink seems like a chore. Washing dishes with a garden hose can be fun, Stewart says with a chuckle.
“She’s having a great time,” Stewart says. “It’s been a kick for her. Kind of.”
Adjusted to the simple life
Sammi is an easy kid to please. She even likes broccoli . . . without the cheese sauce.
Sammi is used to a life without nice things. But sometimes, she admits, she wants more.
Some girls her age hope for brand-name jeans when school starts. Sammi just wants jeans that are new.
Shopping for school clothes will mean a trip to Goodwill.
“Maybe we can get something at Wal-Mart, too,” Sammi pleads with her mom.
But money’s tight.
“I’ve got everything I need, but I wish I had more for my daughter,” Stewart says.
The daughter doesn’t protest.
Sammi, whose golden chestnut hair falls just below tanned shoulders, says her life by the lake is actually pretty good. She goes to the beach almost every day. She gets to have her mattress near the TV.
Sammi loves the yard. And she’s especially proud of the back porch. “It’s a foyer,” she says, carefully pronouncing it “fwa-yaah.”
Sammi uses two words to describe both her home and her mother: “Definitely different.”
The girl seems adjusted to what has become a comfortably unpredictable way of living.
“Sammi is used to the life,” her mother says.
Neither of them can figure out why other people are trying to complicate their unrushed, simple life.
The mother and daughter are worried the social worker who knocked on their door a few days earlier will take Sammi away.
Sammi curls her legs into her chest, lowers her eyes and whispers: “I don’t like that woman.”
Social worker raises concerns
Stewart says a social worker from the Iowa Department of Human Services stopped by her house a couple weeks after the water quit working. Stewart figures an anonymous complaint drew the social worker here.
Stewart identified the social worker as Barb Kruse-Veit in the Storm Lake office. Kruse-Veit referred a reporter’s questions to her supervisor, Paula Heckenlively.
Heckenlively said the department’s confidentiality rules prohibit her from discussing the case. She said she could talk in general about the goal of the state’s social workers: to assure that children are safe and supervised.
A woman like Stewart wouldn’t necessarily lose her child if the home had no water -or even no electricity -as long as the child’s basic needs were being met.
“We look at whether a child is clean enough, whether they are going to a neighbor or relative’s house for showers,” Heckenlively says. “We try to work with people.”
Kim Johnson, environmental health and zoning director for Buena Vista County, confirmed that she received a complaint from the Department of Human Services about the lack of running water in the home.
Under the state’s landlord-tenant law, landlords are supposed to make sure tenants have amenities such as running water. Johnson said she sent a letter to Douglass, requiring her to fix the water problem.
“I wish there was more I could do,” Johnson says. “But if we have more rules, they have to be enforced, which is not always easy to do.”
Johnson says she also was informed that the house was filthy and flea-infested.
Stewart and Sammi share their home with three dogs: a golden retriever, a border-collie mix and a beagle that lives in the closet. Stewart says the social worker told her that the house was too small for two people and three dogs.
The social worker admonished Stewart for poor housekeeping.
“I know the house isn’t the cleanest, but I have a broken leg,” Stewart retorts. She broke her left ankle in early July and still wears a cast.
Stewart says the social worker proposed the idea of government housing, but the mother and daughter would rather stay where they are.
And, Stewart adds, she didn’t need a social worker to tell her that she ought to have running water. “I was working on it.”
She sent Sammi to a friend’s house for several days before the problem was fixed.
Stewart found a pump for $500, including installation, but says she couldn’t afford it. Stewart’s monthly income is $850 from Social Security and disability payments.
Douglass knew Stewart and Sammi were without water, but she figured Stewart was taking care of it. Then, the county public-health official’s letter arrived at Douglass’ home.
That’s when Douglass says she stepped in to fix the problem.
“Yes, I got the letter. I laughed, threw it away and took care of things. I mean, come on,” Douglass says.
Douglass paid $230 for a water pump and found a friend to install it.
It was a sunny summer afternoon when the man walked through the front door with the answer to Stewart’s problems. He was cradling a shiny, black pump.
Stewart beamed. She rose from her chair, hobbled out the front door and went to find Sammi at a friend’s house.
“I have some good news,” Stewart told her daughter.
Sammi could finally come home.
The homecoming party didn’t last long.
Stewart checked the toilet and faucets.
The water pump was working, but another problem had quickly and cruelly emerged to spoil her happiness.
A septic drain pipe was clogged, and sewage was backing up into the home.
Stewart grabbed her medicine bottles, slammed the bathroom door shut and didn’t go back in for a week.
She grabbed a five-gallon bucket and headed for the back yard.
Living in fear
Stewart has a bad feeling that is keeping her up at night.
She’s convinced the social worker will make a surprise visit.
“She’s going to come back. It’s going to be totally unexpected, and she’s going to take Sammi,” Stewart says.
She sits in her armchair and scribbles a list of reasons she and Sammi should be able to live here: Privacy. Lake close by. Not much traffic. Safe.
She can stand living in this house, but she can’t stand living in fear.
“I can’t live like this I can’t have my daughter live like this,” Stewart says. “My life would be so perfect if this lady was out of my life.”
A “Lifeguard-Okoboji” T-shirt hangs loosely from her 5-foot-tall frame. She feels like she’s the one drowning.
Uncertainty lies ahead
Stewart calls the only person she thinks can help: Mom.
Her mother lives in Virginia and keeps an “emergency fund.” This, Stewart is convinced, would qualify as an emergency. With her mother’s help, Stewart pays the $170 it will take to clear the pipes.
More than a month after her plumbing problems began, Stewart finally can flush her toilet.
The water from the kitchen sink still comes out in a slow trickle, but the shower works fine. This satisfies her.
The social worker dropped in, as Stewart predicted, but Stewart found her to be pleasant. Stewart told her that the water situation had been solved, and that she had plans to get rid of a dog. The social worker made no mention of taking Sammi.
Later, Stewart received a final written report from the social worker in the mail but hasn’t heard from her since. Things seem to be looking up.
Still, Stewart seems gloomy. She has taped a handwritten sign to the front door: “Do Not Disturb Please -Trying to Sleep.”
She is inside her dark house -thick with smoke and flies -on the kind of blue-sky September day that makes you feel glad to live in Iowa.
She slouches in her armchair, with a pack of Dorals nearby, her cast propped up and the television blaring. She’s wearing a stained T-shirt decorated with a cartoonish dog and a message in bright-pink letters: “Spoil Me.”
Something’s bothering her.
Douglass was supposed to pay her electric bill but hadn’t done it for four months, Stewart says. Douglass, however, says the electric bill now has been paid.
Another thing has been worrying Stewart: She’s heard about Iowa winters, and how the temperatures can dip well below zero.
Already, she can feel the nip in the air at night.
That’s OK for now, when she and Sammi can keep themselves warm with blankets. But she doesn’t know what will happen when they actually need heat.
“It took a month to get a water pump in here,” Stewart grumbles.
She says she considers Douglass a good friend, but sometimes, “the pot-smoking celebrity is living in la-la land.”
Douglass is annoyed by what Stewart has said she has tried to be good to her friend. Douglass promises that Stewart will have a working furnace before winter comes.
“She can count on me. I’ve got the heart of God-knows-what,” Douglass says. “Elin will be fine. She has found her home.”
Stewart’s not so sure anymore. She’s thinking of looking for another place to live.
A sad truth about this place near the lake has finally washed over her: Maybe it’s not so perfect after all.