Walla Walla family pushed to the edge

Family members find few options after being displaced from home.

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Living out of their RV and out of propane, Lisa Rowden leans over her partner Tim as the two work together trying to prime and start their motorhome in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge Friday morning. Grandaughter Alisha Kern, 6, and her mother Heather Clapper look on hopefully in the background. The family scrounged up $8 and some change to put as much propane into the RV as they could afford before Time Rowden checked in at Providence St. Mary Medical Center for shoulder surgery.

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Alisha Kern, 6, smiles as she gets out of her family's RV parked in the Elks Lodge parking lot with her grandmother Lisa Rowden. Tim Rowden (legs at right) grabs something from the driver's seat of the RV before driving to the hospital for shoulder surgery with the rest of his family. The trio, along with Alisha's mom Heather Clapper have been living out the RV without heat on many nights because they cannot afford propane.

While to many the weekend's snow fall was a slippery inconvenience, the slightly warmer weather carried in by the storm was welcomed by the Tim Rowden family.

Temperatures in the mid-20s mean a few less dollars spent on daily propane costs ... meaning a little less time spent panhandling for fuel money and a little more time staying in the house.

Which, for this family of four, is an aging 1986 RV with a broken generator and various other ills.

On the coldest days, it takes about $30 to buy enough propane to keep the house on wheels heated to 65 degrees. A space heater is out of the question, Tim's wife, Lisa, explained. "It's an arm and a leg to run."

In the meantime, nothing keeps the winter wind from seeping in around the door and windows. On most days of late, the door has been as icy on the inside as out, the Rowdens said.

Tim, 42, and Lisa share the RV with their daughter, Heather Clapper, Heather's child and a handful of cats. Furnishings include two signs held aloft for panhandling -- "Need propane for heat" and "Need Gas Please Help."

It didn't used to be this way, the family explained. "And we're not homeless," Tim emphasized. "I consider us displaced. We have a motor home, so we got a home."

Late last week, the Rowdens had one goal -- drum up the $160 needed to secure a spot at Trailer Haven. "It's a little dumpy," Lisa said of the lot, shrugging apologetically.

"The main deal is getting a permanent connection" for power, Tim said.

Married 20 years, the couple has depended most on Tim's ability to bring in income. In the seven years they've lived in Walla Walla, his janitorial jobs paid the rent on a house.

Lisa, 42, works in retail when she can, but serious mental illness has kept her home more often than not, she said. "They say I have personality disorder," she said, struggling to maintain eye contact.

She lacks health coverage to get help. Not because it's unavailable, but getting treatment requires Lisa to authorize a release of information -- and that her illness won't allow, she acknowledged. "I'm worried they can commit me if I sign something."

Yet they maintained a home until Tim tore his rotator cuff and developed a bone spur in the same shoulder. In a short time the Rowdens went from being close to the edge to on the edge.

They let go of the house and moved into the RV to save money.

Soon they were over the cliff. Tim's condition worsened until nearly every job became too much. Finally, not even trailer space was cheap enough.

Even as they find it distasteful, Tim and Lisa get state assistance of $339 a month and about $350 in food stamps, they said. "We're good on food. When the stamps run out, we eat at the mission."

Far from his desire, however, Tim said. "I want to work. I'm tired of this. My self esteem is like this," he added, holding a thumb and forefinger barely apart. "Having to stand out there with a sign."

Heather, 23, has been working on and off to get a high school diploma. Going to school is difficult, however, when it's hard to keep up on laundry and showers, she said.

That's one thing the family has sheltered Heather's 6-year-old daughter from, the Rowdens said. "A friend lets us bathe (her) every night at their house," Tim explained. "I'm not going to send her to school dirty. People in our situation still take care of their kids."

Taking care of themselves is trickier. As Tim heals from Friday's shoulder surgery, it's up to Lisa and Heather to beg for propane money. Sometimes that brings an unwelcome suggestion from men and sometimes it brings the police, who must roust them from one place to another.

His officers recognize people are having a hard time, said Chuck Fulton, chief of the Walla Walla Police Department "We're caught between a rock and hard place. It's lose-lose. We're the bad guy because we have to do it. We do all the things no one else wants to do."

No matter that he sympathizes with their situation, his department has received complaints about the Rowdens stealing electricity, dumping illegally and not being good neighbors, the chief said. "We get put in the middle of having to move folks along."

In the meantime the family has looked to local social service agencies for help. Family shelter units are full, with a long waiting list, said Jason Wicklund of Christian Aid Center.

It's a similar story elsewhere, Tim added. "Helpline said it had no funds ... I went to Blue Mountain Action Council to get propane and the guy was real nice, but he said we had to have a physical address to get it."

Lisa and Heather keep the gas can nearby when panhandling. "Elderly people worry we'll drink up money they give us," Lisa explained. "I put the can out so people can get it filled. Or I tell them they can get a gas card."

What they want most, however, is a shred of dignity. Their situation could happen to a lot of people, the family feels. "Don't judge when you see people asking for money," Heather said, her hands jammed into a ski jacket just beginning to turn grimy.

"It's fine if they can't help," Tim added. "We're not the only ones in this position."

Yet the kindness they have been shown makes up for the insults and slurs, he said. "If it wasn't for the people who have helped us, there's no telling..."

He paused and wiped a hand across his eyes. "We've very thankful for those people. Bless those people."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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