New home for the holidays

Story & Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

With less than an hour to safely evacuate their home of fourteen years, Beth and Scott Hastreiter piled what they could into bins and boxes.

It being December, they already had their Christmas tree up, ornaments and lights dangling in the glow of the holiday season. Faced with evacuation of a building under threat of “imminent collapse,” there was a premium on the time allotted to pack the tree and everything else.

So, Beth’s sister swaddled the tree in industrial packing wrap, ornaments, treetopper and all, to move it quickly to their new place in a nearby village.

Beth and Scott Hastreiter pose with their Christmas tree, one of the items they were able to gather from their former home was evacuated under threat of collapse. The Hastreiters credit support from community agencies like the American Red Cross for their quick recovery.

That Christmas tree was standing and twinkling in a living room still in the process of unpacking – the new and welcome anchor after an 18-day journey for the Hastreiters, going from a familiar apartment to emergency evacuation, from two days at a hotel to a week at an American Red Cross shelter.

“Homelessness really can happen to anybody, at any time, for any reason. We are anybody,” said Beth Hastreiter. “It really can happen to anybody. And thank God there are agencies like yours that step in when something like that happens. One day you think things are stable and then literally the ground beneath you is not there any more.”

On Dec. 2, the city called for an evacuation to the four-story residential building near downtown Waukesha. While the building had faced issues in recent months, no one expected to have to leave, especially so suddenly. Many stayed at a hotel for a day or two supported by the local Salvation Army. Then, the American Red Cross opened a shelter at Elmbrook Church, for those who were without places to stay with friends, family or backed by insurance coverage. Along with a shelter occupied by a handful of residents, Red Cross volunteers provided nearly 300 meals and snacks, 31 contacts for health, mental health or spiritual care services.  

Crews work to stabilize a 40-plus-unit building in Waukesha after an evacuation in early December.

Scott Hastreiter, who works days at a local screen-printing shop, said it was a relief to know essentials like meals and a roof over their heads were taken care of at the shelter. He recalled their shared giddiness over finding toothpaste in a Red Cross hygiene kit.

“It was a comfort to be able to go back and … just knowing that we were secure, somewhere for the meantime where we could be OK,” he said.

Coincidentally, the church that opened its doors was the same attended by the Hastreiters, a sign of sorts, Beth felt. While staying at the shelter, the couple walked across the Brookfield church campus to attend services and to lead their weekly Sunday school duties with toddlers.

While recovery from an evacuation or disaster often receives less outside attention than the initial shock of the incident, it can often take up much more of the physical and mental bandwidth. At first, Beth felt overwhelmed by all the recovery steps and costs jotted down in front of her on tablet paper. Red Cross volunteers talked through achievable daily steps in their recovery plan, what they could handle today, tomorrow and further down the road. Later, the Red Cross and Waukesha County partner agencies opened a multi-agency resource center for a one-stop shop with assistance and guidance.

“Every day [Red Cross volunteers] were helping me with what I needed to do to make forward progress. I could have never accomplished the amount of stuff that had to get done any other way,” she said.

The Hastreiters share their experiences and get advice from Red Cross volunteers Hillary Wanecke, left, and John Hughes at a shelter established at Elmbrook Church following a building evacuation in Waukesha.

Less than three weeks later, the Hastreiters have shifted from uncertainty to their own new place in Mukwonago. The recovery remains a daily process for the couple, together since 2000, as with many others no longer allowed to return to the Waukesha condo building. At the Hastreiter’s new apartment, a doormat calls this their “happy place” as candles waft a coziness through the air. The Christmas tree is beaming; the rest of the furniture will find its place in due time.

Beth summarized the last few weeks with perspective and gratitude befitting of the holiday season: “This feels more like home every day and it feels like our life is improving every day. At least going forward, we have stability and that started with being at the shelter and having people to walk us through a plan. We couldn’t have done that on our own.”

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