TWIN FALLS — Divorce turned everything upside down for Lorie Wendel.
After the stay-at-home mom parted ways with her husband in 2012, she and her three children moved into an apartment, and Wendel worked for 2 1/2 years as a Walmart clerk.
But working aggravated a pre-existing back injury, she said, and a doctor told her she needed to stop.
Things spiraled downhill.
The family, homeless since April 2014, just celebrated its second Christmas at the Old Towne Lodge in downtown Twin Falls. Before moving there, Wendel and her kids bounced among Addison Avenue West motels and spent three weeks at Valley House Homeless Shelter.
Wendel said she probably could afford to pay rent for their own place but doesn’t have money for a deposit.
And for two years, she has fought to get disability benefits. A medical provider told her she had arthritis, she said, but an MRI revealed one herniated disc and three bulging discs causing nerve impingement.
Now the 52-year-old says she can’t work or lift more than five pounds.
“My kids have been an awesome help.”
‘Don’t want their classmates to know’
Metal stairs lead to the second floor of the Old Towne Lodge on Second Avenue West, with exterior hallways. From the inside, a fuzzy blanket covers the window of the family’s motel room.
On the frigid afternoon of Jan. 11, Wendel answered her door, apologizing for the dirty floor because she hadn’t vacuumed yet that day.
Inside, her 16-year-old daughter, Rebecca Haney, sat on a bed doing math homework. Her worksheets and notebooks were neatly organized in a pink binder.
“I need you to help me study because we have a quiz on Friday,” she told her mother.
After finishing her math problems, Rebecca took out large sketchpads and colored pencils and worked on a drawing of a peace sign.
Stanley Haney, 13, lay on mattresses on the floor playing a game on his cellphone. He got up to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, placing the bread on a blanket.
Johnathan Haney, 17, was still at a school drama rehearsal.
The four people share their single motel room with three cats. Wendel and Rebecca share a bed, up off the floor. The boys sleep on two stacked mattresses.
Wendel said she’s at the motel most of the time except when picking up Stanley from school. She’s worried about her son — who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome — walking home from the bus stop by himself.
Inside the motel room, clothes were jammed into a small closet. Bins, games and cleaning supplies were stacked below. All over the room were plastic drawers with clothes and other possessions.
Baseball caps hung on one wall, and the nails hammered into the opposite wall were empty. A bag of trash hung inside the front door, its strings around a hinge. The odor of cigarette smoke filled the room.
In the bathroom, white paint is peeling away from the wall. The faucet runs continually, and the toilet doesn’t always flush. And, Wendel said, there’s mold.
She decided against a bigger room at the motel because those have miniature refrigerators. All of the rooms come with a microwave, she said. She also has a full-size refrigerator, a Crock-Pot and an electric skillet, and a friend loaned her a toaster oven.
“We eat just fine,” Wendel said. “The only thing that sucks is we don’t have an oven.”
But living in a motel room has other challenges.
Last summer, police were at the motel for five days straight when fights broke out, Wendel said, adding she keeps a close eye on her children. “During the wintertime, it’s not so bad.”
Despite the challenges, Wendel said her children get their schoolwork done and she helps them.
And she knows if her children need anything for school, she can call JoAnn Gemar — the Twin Falls School District’s at-risk service coordinator and homeless liaison.
“She’s been my crutch through all of this,” Wendel said.
Wendel said she appreciates how the school district doesn’t single out the children when they receive help.
“The kids don’t want their classmates to know they’re living in a motel or car,” she said.
Rebecca looked up from her homework. “Me,” she said.
The school district has provided school supplies and vouchers to buy shoes. When Stanley’s binder broke recently, Wendel called Gemar to ask for another.
Wendel’s two oldest children go to Canyon Ridge High School.
“Canyon Ridge did a really awesome thing for us this year,” she said.
The family was a recipient of Christmas gifts through the student council’s Pennies for Possibilities program. When student leaders delivered the presents, an entire bed was stacked high with gifts.
“That’s all I could do,” Wendel said, “was sit here and cry.”
‘Quite the turnaround’
As she talked about her children the morning of Jan. 19, pajama-clad Wendel sat on her bed smoking a cigarette.
Thor, a 6-month-old cat, jumped onto her lap, eventually spreading out on the bed to fall asleep.
Wendel said she’s proud of her children and thinks they’ll do well as adults.
Johnathan graduates from Canyon Ridge this year and plans to attend the College of Southern Idaho. He is protective of his family, is good at striking up conversations with strangers and “tells it like it is,” Wendell said. Also, “he has a very, very large passion for music.”
Johnathan’s father loves to sing; while they were married, Wendel bought a karaoke machine. When Johnathan was 4 or 5, he’d pick up a microphone and sing along with his father.
He wants to be a country singer, Wendel said. But his plan is to become a business owner, opening his own music store and recording studio.
“He’s known since the seventh grade what he wanted to do,” Wendel said. “That’s saying a lot for a teenager.”
She started talking with Johnathan about paying for college when he was in ninth grade. He was approved for financial aid and is applying for a GEAR UP need-based scholarship. He doesn’t doesn’t want to use student loans, Wendel said.
Johnathan plans to earn a degree in business management/entrepreneurship, and Wendel spoke to a CSI adviser about the program.
“They teach you everything you need to know to start a business,” she said.
Wendel said she’s proud of Rebecca, too. Her daughter — now a high school junior — used to make every excuse not to go to school. “She had a huge chip on her shoulder.”
But just before school started in August, Rebecca told her mom she would try hard in classes, Wendel said. “She’s proved it.”
Rebecca does her homework and chores and cooks dinner. “She’s made quite the turnaround,” Wendel said.
Rebecca isn’t sure what she wants to do but has dreamed of going to a California university, Wendel said, and becoming a nurse or pediatrician. She also enjoys photography and drawing.
For Stanley’s birthday each March, Wendel asks him what he wants. He doesn’t usually give a straight answer. He either wants everything he sees, Wendel said, or what his older brother has.
But lately, she’s starting to see his own interests come through. He loves Pokeman — especially Pikachu — and wants to collect Pokeman cards.
Stanley received a box of LEGOs for Christmas, and she watched that activity flourish.
“Without using the book that comes with it, he’s very creative,” she said.
Wendel said she thinks her son may be good with computers and wants to test his interest in different topics.
‘Not end up like I am’
It’s a long process applying for disability benefits. And Wendel hates waiting.
At a disability hearing in early January, the judge decided to keep her case open for a month, Wendel said, pending the results of a Feb. 2 consultation with a surgeon.
“The judge was really surprised when I told him we’re living in a motel,” she said. But she told him the family is getting by.
On Feb. 3 — the day after her consultation — Wendel said the surgeon wrote in her medical record that she could go back to work but that it would create more issues.
“In terms of disability, I’m not sure what that’s going to do,” she said, adding she hopes it doesn’t jeopardize her case. Wendel called her attorney to pass along the report.
She found out during the appointment that she also has sacroiliitis, a joint issue causing inflammation and pain near the lower spine and pelvis.
Wendel said she was told surgery won’t be an option and her condition is chronic and can’t be fixed. She was given stretches to try for two to three weeks. If that doesn’t help, she’ll be referred to a physical therapist.
“I was a little depressed when I left the doctor’s office,” she said.
Before that appointment, Wendel said she felt confident she’ll win the disability case. If she does, she expects to get a lump sum of $15,000 to $20,000. It would allow the family to get into a more permanent residence and buy a better used car.
What Wendel wants for her children’s futures: “that they not end up like I am in a motel.”