The couple faces multiple crises

Betsy Biesenbach special for the Roanoke Times

Family is everything to Whitney Ostenson.

When she was growing up, she and her five siblings spent much of their lives in foster care, part with an aunt and uncle who she considers second parents, she said. Despite long separations from each other, the siblings are close, and after marrying a North Dakota man in 2016 and living with him there and in Tennessee in 2021, Ostenson, 30, felt lure back to Roanoke to be with them.

“I missed my family,” Ostenson said. Her sister was battling cancer and she “wanted to see her nieces and nephews grow.”

And it was her family’s call that brought her to Roanoke-area ministries in September, when a grant from the Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which is supported by the Roanoke Good Neighbors Fund Times, saved the couple from becoming homeless.

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Ostenson and her husband, Joshua Ostenson, live in a Roanoke apartment in an older neighborhood where the monthly rent is under $600. They share their home with a cat, a dog and a hamster.

Joshua Ostenson manages a storage space and Whitney Ostenson works two part-time jobs.

She said she struggled with anxiety and depression, but pushed through and went to work even when she didn’t feel like it.

“I work seven days a week,” Whitney Ostenson said. “As long as I keep busy, I’m fine, and talking to my husband helps a lot.”

She does not receive any medical benefits through her jobs, and although her husband does, the couple cannot afford to enroll her in his policy. They fall into a gray area where their monthly income disqualifies her for Medicaid, but they also cannot afford a policy under the Affordable Care Act. She called the Bradley Free Clinic, which provides medical care to the working poor in Roanoke, but was told there was a months-long waiting list.

When inflation and high prices started to affect them, the couple applied for food stamps and were told they were making $10 too much a month to qualify. She cried when she talked about it, while laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Besides their hard work, the other thing that kept them afloat was the kindness of Joshua Ostenson’s fellow Freemasons, who helped them with money and a second car when it became too difficult to do them. both working with one, she said.

There is usually no wiggle room in the couple’s budget. At the end of that summer, when they received the call that Joshua’s father was terminally ill, they each missed five days of work and had to pay for transport, food and accommodation to get there. home in Minnesota, and it took every penny they had.

“They said ‘you have to come now’ if you want to see it,” Whitney Ostenson said. “We spent all our money on this.”

Her father died in September and the couple had to turn around and make the trip again. This time he managed to get paid time off, but she didn’t. Her family contributed some expenses, so they started the 7 p.m. car trip, as they could not afford to fly.

Driving was also problematic, she said. They had just purchased a 1999 Oldsmobile, but there were some administrative issues with the paperwork. They had been caught driving it without a valid title and were afraid to take it out until the matter was settled. The dealer lent them a car, but when they got to Beckley, West Virginia, it started to overheat. The couple pulled over to the side of the road and got out just before the vehicle caught fire.

Family and friends helped them get to and from Minnesota, Whitney Ostenson said, but they returned home to find a utility cut notice and a letter threatening deportation within five days. if they didn’t pay their rent.

The property’s previous owners viewed them as model tenants, even though they didn’t always pay in full on time, but the new owners are stricter and have increased the rent for other units when tenants moved out, Ostenson said.

She also worried about how she was going to feed her animals.

“Pets are my children,” she said, and while they aren’t certified service animals, they fulfill that role in her life. “My dog ​​has helped me so much.”

Ostenson said she had never asked for help before.

“I was ashamed,” she said. “I should be able to support myself.”

She had friends who received services through Total Action Against Poverty, but was told these were for existing clients only, she said. Social workers referred her to the Central Admissions Division of the Roanoke Department of Social Services and helped her complete the paperwork. Ostenson said she’s also been working with a social worker to learn how to manage her money better and make meals more stretchable.

Because her rent is so low, Central Intake was able to cover the full amount, but she said they couldn’t do anything about the electric bill. Ostenson was given a list of charities she could apply to, but none of them had any money, she said. RAM did, however, and she received a grant for the bill and avoided penalties and reconnect fees.

Shortly after RAM sent a check to the electric company, her husband received a bonus from his employer that would have covered the bill.

“I didn’t need any more help,” she said, so she immediately called the charity and tried to refund the money. But RAM’s social workers offered to leave the payment in their account as a credit. That meant the pair, much to their delight, had an extra $600 in their budget that month.

It’s their only financial cushion.

When the October rent was due, she says, “it really helped a lot.” The couple planned to use any extra parts for one of their cars or have a visit to the dentist for a tooth that was bothering them.

It was a difficult year for the couple. Along with losing Joshua Ostenson’s father, the uncle who was always Whitney Ostenson’s father figure also passed away. But they are looking forward to moving into their own home soon. Fellow Mason set them up with a rent-to-own near Vinton.

“They are wonderful people,” Ostenson said of her husband’s lodge brothers. “They were a godsend.”

She is also grateful for the help she has received from RAM.

“They were super nice,” she said. “They even called to check on me.”

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