By Anna Krejci, Dells Events
Virginia Rogge’s lifestyle today has drastically changed from what it was 24 years ago.
Married and living in a home north of Wisconsin Dells, Rogge, 52, was once homeless and pregnant at 28. When she thinks of her home she becomes emotional because there was a time when she lacked a warm, safe place to sleep at night.
In 1982 Rogge said she lived in Pardeeville with her boyfriend, the father of the child she was carrying, until he made her leave when he found out she was pregnant.
“I was out the door,” she said. “I searched and I searched, and I couldn’t tell my mom. I was 28 years old, but I wasn’t married,” she said.
Not only did she conceal her pregnancy from family, but she also tried to hide the fact that she was homeless.
“You really don’t want anybody to know,” she said.
She was born and raised in Baraboo, but she spent a lot of time hitchhiking to Wisconsin Dells and sleeping in the nearby woods or in gas stations so no one she knew from her childhood would know she was homeless, she said.
“There’s such a stigma to it that the only reason you’re homeless is because you’re lazy. And that’s not the truth. I wasn’t lazy. I had somebody that I thought that loved me and he kicked me out. He abandoned me. And then I tried to get a job, and I was pregnant and they don’t like to hire you when you’re pregnant because you’re a liability,” Rogge said.
Rogge recalled what she lived through as a homeless person.
“I had to dive in dumpsters. The thing is you get hungry and if you don’t have any money you gotta do what you gotta do,” she said.
By digging through garbage, Rogge said she found food and small quantities of shampoo and soap left in containers.
“I’d go into the bathrooms at the gas station and wash my hair,” she said. “That’s how I tried to stay a little bit clean, it’s not like you could take a shower,” she said.
Some of the gas stations were open 24 hours, and she said she would sleep in a bathroom stall all night. Other times she slept in the woods, wearing a coat, parka and sleeping under a thin, knit blanket that she found discarded.
She said she was afraid she would get raped or beaten. One time she was robbed of the money she had panhandled during the day, she said.
Rogge said she begged for money mostly in Baraboo where on a good day she would collect $10. She never tried it in Wisconsin Dells, even though she often came to the Dells to sleep.
“And that was a lot of money. Ten dollars could last me a week,” she said.
With the money she said she would buy bread, or things that wouldn’t spoil because she had no access to a refrigerator. Occasionally she would go to a deli in the grocery store and buy one slice of deli meat at a time.
Sometimes she would “splurg,” she said, and buy shampoo and deodorant.
She recalled going to a fair in Baraboo and watching people throw away food only so she could reclaim it for herself when nobody was looking.
Even though Rogge has a home now, there was a time in 1996 when she felt her home might be taken away from her.
Her mother had just died and her husband, a welder, had been laid off from a job he held for 16 years at Kilbourn Machine Shop, Rogge said.
“I didn’t want to be homeless with two children and a husband,” she said.
They were able to hold onto their home, but Rogge said she sometimes cries just thinking about the prospect of becoming homeless again.
“Homelessness is only a paycheck away,” she said.
Rogge said she believes homeless people live in Wisconsin Dells despite claims by others that the problem doesn’t exist here.
“They all have the blinders on. They don’t see it,” she said.
But Rogge said anyone walking with their head down might be homeless.
“I can pretty much read a homeless person,” she said. “A lot of homeless people won’t look you in the eye.”
“They’ll look down because they’re ashamed. And I think that’s the worst part of it is the shame. And when you have children it’s the guilt.”
Rogge said she was worried her unborn daughter would be unhealthy because of her experience with homelessness.
The fear of giving birth in the woods led her to finally accept help from family. She moved in with an aunt and uncle who lived in Baraboo at the time.
She learned how to tap into services such as rental assistance, food stamps and received a Medical Assistance card so she could receive financial help with costs associated with child birth.
The first job Rogge obtained after her 8-month stint as a homeless person was as a nursing assistant with a nursing home in Wisconsin Dells. She later went on to work at Zinke’s Village Market and Tri-City Insurance, she said.
Rogge received help in the 1980s, but she said today people still find themselves without homes.
“All I wanted was a chance. And that’s all these people need,” she said.
She said she hoped the owners of the waterparks and amusement parks would donate money towards running a homeless shelter in Wisconsin Dells, but Rogge said rich people are selfish. People surviving on low-incomes are the ones helping the people who are even worse off, she said.
Rogge has little sympathy for the housing needs of foreign workers or workers who come to the area looking for temporary employment.
“I don’t care about the kids who come here in the summer time and their job. What I care about is the people who live here now and have no where to live. People who are coming in here to work here during the summer leave and go back home. They have homes. The people who are here who are homeless are looking for a home and they can’t find a home. That’s who I worry about,” Rogge said.
Low-paying jobs and lack of affordable housing in the area are two factors contributing to the area’s homelessness, Rogge said.
Earning $7.25 an hour won’t pay for rent, utilities, food, gas and child care, she said.
Rogge said some people are homeless because of their own doing.
“But there are a lot of good people that are out there because they cut their hours on their job and they’re like ‘OK, do I pay my rent or do I feed my kids?'” she said.
Rogge’s life is more stable now, although she said she is receiving disability payments for a condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy.
The payments have been made on the house she lives in with her husband.
“This is mine and nobody can take it away,” Rogge said. “I want other people to feel that way too.”