TINLEY PARK, Ill. (CBS) — This is the story of a south suburban woman who found herself homeless, desperate, and frightened.
But suddenly, she met some strangers who became her staunchest allies.READ MORE: Man Found Dead In West Garfield Park House Fire; Woman In Critical Condition
As CBS 2’s Audrina Bigos reported, it all began in the parking lot at Aerotek, a staffing agency in Tinley Park.
“One of our employees called me and said: ‘Hey Kate, I just want to fill you in on something. There is somebody living in their car in our parking lot,’” said Katie Murawski of Aerotek. “‘She’s a super-nice lady. She has two cats.’”
The lady in question was Ruth Ann Van Heel. She had left her job to care for her ailing parents, and after they died, she had no home and no income. All she had was the car, a cellphone paid for by a friend, and the cats.
“I’ve had them for three years and I ran out of money – like so many people have with COVID,” Van Heel said. “I couldn’t get a place to stay, and I couldn’t get a shelter.”
She could not find any shelter that would accept her and the cats, and she couldn’t bear to give them up.
“They’re my babies,” Van Heel said of her female calico and male longhair tabby cats. “Her name is Pumpkin and his name is Puss Cat, and I got them three year ago, and they’re everything to me.”
Van Heel wanted warmth and comfort for her cats. But for more than two months, they all lived in her car – within parking lots of different spots for the night.
“We’ve been in these cramped quarters, you know, and he sleeps on me and she sleeps on me to stay warm,” Van Heel said.
“We kind of took a liking to her and we just wanted to help her out,” Murawski said.
Aerotek employees brought Van Heel and the cats food, blankets, and even books – and then there was something that changed everything.
Murawski posted a picture of Van Heel’s cats on the Facebook page of an animal shelter.
“And literally within hours, so many Facebook posts, so many messages, so many people reaching out to me – ‘How can I help? What can I do?’” Murawski said. “That’s when Janine got put into the conversation, and it was ‘I can take these cats. I can be there tomorrow. Whatever you guys need, I will be there.’”READ MORE: 2 Dead, 3 injured After Shooting At Yard Party In Gresham
Enter cat foster mom Janine Marino.
“A lot of times, we condemn people for giving up their pets, but a lot of times, what we don’t see is it’s an absolutely desperate situation; a very last resort,” Marino said. “I promised to work to get them adopted into a wonderful home.”
So after many hugs and goodbyes, Van Heel let Marino take her fur babies.
“I texted her some pictures of my foster cat room, so she was happy to see that. So I think it gave her a little bit of peace,” Marino said.
And that’s happening too. Van Heel found a shelter at Morningstar Mission in Joliet, and she plans to learn a trade and get on her feet again. But she worries for others who haven’t found the help that she did.
“I can’t believe there are people like me and there’s nowhere to go. There really is nowhere to go,” Van Heel said. “I don’t know if anybody’s ever woke up, and before their eyes open, you have just with tears come down your face – and you’re not even awake yet.”
But in the end, for Van Heel, the kindness of strangers made all the difference.
“Just the sense of community that happened in this situation just blows my mind,” Murawski said.
Van Heel agreed to go on camera with us to highlight the hardship of homelessness. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help her get back on her feet – and on the page, Murawski goes into more detail about Van Heel’s story and the efforts that were put forth on her behalf.
Also, there is a great need for homes to foster and adopt cats right now. Forever Fortunate Felines is one of many rescues helping to save hundreds.
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