Wyoming, like many states, expects the chronically homeless to become self-sufficient by jumping through conventional hoops.

To obtain and retain government-subsidized housing, state residents must receive treatment for any mental health and/or substance abuse problems. If physically able, they are expected to work.

All of this is much easier said than done when someone is living on the street without the security of housing and enough food to survive. Imagine the difficulty of keeping therapy appointments or scheduling job interviews if one is sleeping on a park bench or behind a dumpster.

Opinion

Meanwhile, other Wyoming residents are newly homeless, almost certainly the result of losing their jobs and housing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These individuals and families need immediate shelter.

Gov. Mark Gordon has challenged residents to make proposals as big and bold as possible for Wyoming’s $1.1 billion share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. He calls his strategy “survive, drive and thrive”: Determine what the state needs to survive, and what can be done to better drive to a future where all of Wyoming can thrive.

Here’s my big, bold proposal: A $20 million Wyoming trust fund to end homelessness, using the “Housing First” model that has been so successful in other states.

Wyoming has considered numerous plans and initiatives to combat homelessness over the years, but a lack of revenue has always been the primary obstacle. ARPA could provide the seed capital needed to tackle this long-standing problem.

Why establish a trust fund? Because the governor has stipulated that ARPA funds should not be used to start new programs. Wyoming needs an effort that can meet immediate needs but also build for the future, ensuring stability for the long-term goal of ending homelessness.

Why $20 million? I would defer to the state’s social services and financial experts to determine the necessary size of the fund, but this amount would be less than 2% of the total ARPA funds. I think Wyoming should designate at least that relatively small portion of this infusion of federal money to solve a chronic problem that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

The trust fund would be a public-private partnership, with a concerted effort to promote donations from individuals and foundations. The state would leverage additional federal housing dollars that become available.

As the new programs reduce expenditures for law enforcement, county hospitals and emergency shelters, local governments would be able to help replenish the trust fund. Housing First programs in other states have realized such savings from having fewer homeless people incarcerated or in need of emergency healthcare.

Housing First differs from other approaches that require the chronically homeless to free themselves of psychological and addiction problems, get a job and meet other requirements in order to access housing. Its guiding principle is that having a place to live is the foundation for improving one’s life, so the program provides unconditional, permanent housing.

There are two common Housing First models. One, called permanent supportive housing, provides apartments to individuals and families with chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental health issues and substance use disorders who have experienced long-term or repeated homelessness. If they have jobs or become employed, participants pay up to 30% of their income per month for rent.

The second model is rapid re-housing, which provides short-term rental assistance and services to people who become homeless due to a temporary personal or financial crisis.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness points out that supportive services are offered and case managers help each client, but “services have been found to be more effective when a person chooses to engage.”

Wyoming is a conservative state where many people — including state lawmakers — strongly believe that a person on the lower rungs of the economic ladder should pull themselves up, with minimal help from the government. Their philosophy goes that nothing should be handed to anyone with no strings attached, including an apartment.

If Wyoming is truly looking for a program that is essential for people to ‘survive, drive and thrive,’ this is it.

Kerry Drake

But another red Western state, Utah, has a Housing First program that has been a runaway success, reducing its number of chronically homeless people by 91% in the past decade. During that same period, homelessness has increased by 213% in Wyoming.

Before Utah’s Housing First pilot project in Salt Lake City in 2005, the state spent more than $19,000 annually, including jail and healthcare costs, to care for each chronically homeless person. Today, the state spends $7,800 a year to house and provide a case worker to a formerly homeless person.

Why does this innovative approach work so well? Here’s the conclusion reached by “Our Wisconsin Revolution,” a group that is working toward a Housing First program in LaCrosse:

“People experiencing homelessness are often dealing with severe trauma, abuse, and health issues that they have not had the support or resources to work through. Moving in and out of shelters daily without a place to call their own with a sense of permanence, and requiring them to go cold turkey to obtain safety, does not provide the necessities to deal with these issues.”

The Urban Institute studied the five-year experience of a Denver Housing First program launched to break the homelessness-jail cycle. It succeeded in reducing the number of arrests for participants by 40% compared to those who were still homeless.

“People experiencing homelessness, especially those forced to live outside, are more likely to interact with police and to face citations, arrests and incarceration for low-level offenses like loitering or sleeping in parks,” the organization reported. “The criminalization of homelessness puts people at risk, and it puts the onus on police and jails to respond to homelessness – a problem they aren’t equipped to solve.”

Gordon’s ARPA “strike team” has advanced many worthy projects. All told they add up to $3 billion, and I encourage you to check them out at the governor’s website. Gordon and legislators will have a tough time paring these proposals and others submitted by the public down to the $1.1 billion for uses the state of Wyoming will adopt.

I believe Wyoming needs to restore a significant amount of money to the Department of Health, which has seen its budget cut by at least $200 million in recent years. I know that the governor’s goals include attracting and retaining more families and young people in Wyoming, and growing the economy by adding value to the state’s businesses and core industries and recruiting new ones. It’s a sensible economic approach.

There must also be funds available for outdoor recreation, enhancing wildlife populations and strengthening the state’s water infrastructure, to name just a few categories the governor listed.

But I believe creating a trust fund to end homelessness meets several of Gordon’s criteria for ARPA funding. There will be a substantial, long-term return on the investment, which will save money compared to the status quo. Using the Housing First model will be sustainable and not add to the state’s ongoing financial expenditures.

The trust fund will benefit people by providing one of the most basic human needs: a safe place to live. If Wyoming is truly looking for a program that is essential for people to “survive, drive and thrive,” this is it.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Moot point. Dementia Joe is planning to pull funding allocated to Red States cuz we don’t spend it like the drunken sailors in California. So just remember who causes homelessness. Bad policies that restrict capital investment and destroy successful segments to benefit cronies and white elephants to fight a climate boogeyman that was made up of whole cloth.
    Oh well. Might as well just bus them to California. It’s warmer there anyway, and they can steal food all day long. Problem solved.

  2. Why do we continue to throw money down the drain when we could set aside an Inheritance Fund to help people buy a home? Give every 25-year-old $50,000 – $100,000 to invest in a home. That money would go back into the fund when the resident passes on. Throughout their lifetime, every Wyoming resident would have a fund to buy a home. If they sell their home, they can keep the profits and use the Inheritance Fund to buy their next home or it would go back into the general fund until they’re ready to buy again. Giving destitute people enough money to barely survive doesn’t really help them.

    *Start with the eldest and work backwards until you have provided every resident with help to buy a home. This could take decades, but it would continually be replenishing itself only requiring minimal annual revenues to keep it running. It can’t be a pittance, because then you’re back to where you started. It would have to be significant, but it would be an investment instead of a handout. Spending $10,000 a year on one person adds up to $100,000 in 10 years that you will never see again and most likely that person will be in the same position. We have to think smarter.

  3. As a low income apartment complex manager, I agree in the benefit of this type of a program. One thing I would point out, we have Rapid Rehousing presently. There was RR money federally handed down.

    But you also have to have a place to house them. The problem you will see is without stringent case management in place (and sometimes even with) you will see a rise in police activity in any complex they rent in. Most do background checks that would eliminate them as an applicant depending on their criminal record. Then if you saw an increase in police activity and neighbor complaints, etc… you see eviction courts backed up and the cycle repeats. We have to have the case workers in place first and they must be plentiful to truly dedicate the time to each client. Often when they have been in and out of homelessness, they forget how to follow the community rules that are put in place to allow everyone to live peaceably. This is especially true when they are kicked out of a shelter or opt to not stay in one due to an inability to follow the shelter rules.

    It’s a sad circle we see on the daily and I’m not sure how we combat it in a state where communities are perfectly fine closing the only inpatient adult mental health facility that was comprised of a ridiculous 8 beds because “it’s too expensive” or the same community where they fought tooth and nail with success to block a sober living house or in house/rehab center.

    Your implication that homelessness, petty crime, mental illness, violence and addiction are all tied together is spot on. Sadly, we do not have enough qualified case workers in the state for that magnitude of program in my experience.

  4. The problem with homeless housing, I worked with homeless housing in Cheyenne and now here in Phoenix, is nationwide people are willing to pay more taxes to house the homeless. This is true in rural or urban areas, all political areas. The problem is while people are willing to open their wallets the homeless advocates run into a brick wall called NIMBY.

  5. This is what we know: the educated youth that grew up in Wyoming continue to leave to other states because there are better job opportunities there and because the educated just naturally tend to associate together. The uneducated continue to hang around, often ending up in trouble with the law over some petty offense. Just look at what we see every day in places like Sweetwater and Campbell counties. Many of those youth are in effect homeless, drifting from place. There seems to be a perverse pride in being ignorant in this state and the young kids often buy into this nonsense. I would like to see us somehow focus on those kids and try to get them involved in some real meaningful activities because once the cops get their hands on them then their lives are effectively ruined.

  6. Thank you! It’s a start! Wyoming ( 5 generation and pioneer status ) should focus on its long term residents, the elderly and infirm first. Being disabled with sufficient resources has jaded my opinion of most programs ran by Federal employees in Wyoming. Wyoming likes to suck off the Federal tit and then cry when they are malnourished.
    Feed the poor, house the homeless, modify the stupid cannabis laws and STOP being a good damn police state.
    3 police in Buffalo to 16?? You really think Buffalo is crime ridden? Cops have time to tell a person to remove a pride flag.. while their neighbors fly Fuck Biden Banners???
    This is not Alabama or Texas. Wyoming individuals have grit. A bunch of loud mouth Assholes seem to be holding court.

    Governor Gordon is a good man in hot seat. Never thought I’d give a damn about Liz Cheney.. but she’s doing fine.

    Integrity.. Wyoming is losing that., and it breaks my heart.

  7. If throwing money at poverty, and creating big government welfare programs actually worked, the “New Deal” and the “Recovery Act” would have eradicated poverty decades ago. Instead they created more poverty, more burdensome taxes, and tyrannical government control, which is exactly what ruling elites and Marxists want. Democrat socialist cities are collapsing in crime, homelessness, and decay, and it’s not due to a lack of funding. Visit the referenced Denver or Salt Lake City, and you’ll see firsthand that homelessness and crime are at record levels.

    1. Lin,

      I am with you on the idea that we have too many government social welfare programs – especially for rich homeowners. Things like the mortgage interest deduction. Get rid of that. And zoning laws, tax policies, and land use policies that reward those with money, property, and housing while financially penalizing those without. And since you’re going back decades to the New Deal, add redlining to keep African Americans and the poor out of home ownership, and out of ‘nice’ (white) neighborhoods.

      I can give many more examples if you want to play the history game. But why go back it time? Governments, like those in Teton County, have actively prevented affordable housing from being built by private developers with private funds. This is happening all over America. Through their policies, they have made developing affordable housing unduly expensive and more often then not, impossible. Happily so. With support from the spoiled classes.

      The lack of housing for the blue collar working class combined with repressed wages that haven’t kept pace with inflation or productivity has certainly resulted in many being driven out of their local housing markets – pushing some into homelessness. Jackson is the perfect example. But, again, this is clearly illustrated all over the United States.

      When we got out of Afghanistan and took tens of thousands of Afghans with us, guess what happened? We didn’t have enough housing for them. Literally. Google it. Try finding affordable housing for the poor. Almost impossible. And many of the working poor are spending 50% or much more of their income on housing. One family emergency away from homelessness. Every time we bring in more immigrants to subsidize your lifestyle with cheap labor, low-income Americans see demand for low-income housing go up right along with their rents. And availability goes down. Every time.

      We are building second homes for investors to rent on AirBnB. Serious investments in affordable housing have not been made by the private sector or the public sector since the 80’s when 40% of new construction consisted of entry-level homes. By 2020, the percentage of these homes built had dropped to 7%.

      It’s easy to blame the homeless for poor choices. It is easy to paint them all as the great unwashed and unworthy. But I’m am betting that your favored political policies that helped push them into homelessness, and keep them there.

  8. Mr. Drake hits a home run with this one. Let’s hope our representatives and Governor reads this. There are to many people out there that struggle daily with mental health issues. The systems in Wyoming cannot keep up.

    I try to give generously to the homeless shelters and food banks but this last they are more in need than ever before.

    Hopefully this article reaches a lot of individuals that are in control of purse strings.

  9. Very seldom do I agree with Mr. “..Drake’s Take”, but I believe he has made an excellent proposal here. I can only hope that whomever is put in charge of the distribution of these funds will give this idea the consideration it deserves.

  10. This would be SUCH a good investment that would have a multitude of positive ripple effects. Thank you for putting this great idea out there.

  11. A few years ago I had a friend who was homeless and needed healthcare. I went to the county, the sheriff’s office, the VA, and everyone I could think of to find him housing and help. I found out we had no services that would or could help him. The only help they could provide was a bus ticket to Salt Lake City that had the services. Before I could find the help he died.

    I had another friend who died under the underpass in the middle of Evanston who froze to death. I would hope that Wyoming can use the federal funds to provide help to the homeless in Wyoming instead of doing as they did with my friends and refusing federal help as they have with the extension of medicare that could have saved many lives and helped our hospitals that can’t turn away people needing healthcare that use the emergency room as a last resort instead of using medicare extension funds and provide preventative measures that are included in the extension.