Wyoming already has a homeless problem

Wyoming already has some homeless solutions

— April 23, 2013

If Wyoming is to be judged by how it treats the least among us, we’re in trouble.

If the state had a better coordinated effort to provide people shelter, it could nearly triple the amount of federal funds spent annually on services and programs. But it doesn’t, and Wyoming is leaving a lot of money on the table that could be put to good use.

Meanwhile, the state’s homeless population is increasing at an alarming rate. How could this happen?

The answer isn’t sinister. No one has tried to sabotage Wyoming’s homeless effort, nor is there an intentional attempt to snub money from the federal coffers, which is sometimes the case.

Kerry Drake
Kerry Drake

No, it appears that our ineffectiveness is due to bureaucracy. There’s been a demonstrable breakdown in communication and cooperation between state agencies and small nonprofit organizations trying to address the homeless problem at the local level. It’s vital to fix this problem now, before it is exacerbated.

The good news is that Wyoming officials already know much of what needs to be done.

The root causes of homelessness in Wyoming haven’t changed: poverty, physical and mental disabilities, domestic violence, divorce and job losses have all been major factors for years. We also know that while our low unemployment rate is good, some of the people who come to Wyoming for work either aren’t able to find it, or they are paid wages too low to afford one of the scarce, high-priced apartments available.

Some of the solutions necessary to provide shelter for more men, women and children haven’t changed, either. In a 2005 report homeless advocates and state health and social services officials recommended key courses of action Wyoming needed to take:

  • Establish and fund a permanent interagency council on homelessness.
  • Increase funding for homeless services.
  • Conduct an annual census and survey of the homeless throughout Wyoming.

A census is a federal mandate, but a survey — an essential part of defining our homeless population — has never been developed.

All evidence compiled indicates that the homeless problem in Wyoming has gotten worse, with more people living in the streets or in temporary shelters. The one-day special census conducted in January to identify the homeless throughout the state totaled 1,813, compared to 1,038 a year earlier. That’s a startling 75 percent increase.

We all know how cold it can get in Wyoming, so it’s also shocking that the state is the worst in the nation in sheltering its homeless population. Only about one-quarter have a permanent roof over their heads. Another cause for head-shaking is the fact that a small shelter in Green River, the Southwestern Wyoming Recovery Access Programs, recently closed due to a technicality that cut its federal funding, leaving no homeless shelters at all in southwest Wyoming. It’s vital that a safety net for the homeless, particularly women and children, be available in every corner of the state.

One reason why Wyoming’s homeless population is on the rise could be because of a more concerted effort to count the homeless throughout the state, instead of concentrating on the largest cities. But there are many members of “the hidden homeless” — people who couch-surf at the homes of various friends and relatives, or sleep in their vehicles. Homeless advocates estimate the actual number could be twice as high as the official figure.

In March, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Wyoming will receive a $243,155 grant to address homelessness this year. But in an excellent piece of reporting by Ben Storrow of the Casper Star-Tribune, “Out in the Cold,” he explained why the grant is nothing to brag about.

Based on population, poverty rate and other demographic factors, a HUD official told Storrow that Wyoming should have received a $682,000 grant in 2011. But Wyoming didn’t qualify for that full level of support because of inefficiencies in its system. Wyoming doesn’t have a mandatory, detailed statewide plan, so it only received a 57.5 rating from HUD, compared to the national average of 74, resulting in just $338,000 in HUD assistance.

The even lower amount for 2012 is because HUD did not renew one of Wyoming’s four ongoing projects. The funds the state did receive will be used to track data on the state’s homeless population and support programs in Casper and Gillette.

HUD requires each state to operate a “Continuum of Care” (CoC) network for the homeless. Wyoming has one, but it is the only state whose network doesn’t have a charter. There are several vacancies on the board, but the most immediate problem is to replace Mary Randolph, who served as the network’s unpaid coordinator for seven years before resigning in January. She said it’s time for a “fresh new look” at the CoC, and judging by its shortcomings, she’s obviously right. Randolph noted, “We haven’t had a plan to address homelessness for a lot of years.”

But in no way is it necessary for Wyoming to go back to square one to put a plan together. The Wyoming Department of Health, with the help of other state agencies, has developed numerous plans over the years that should be re-evaluated.

To his credit, Gov. Matt Mead has appointed a new homelessness task force, headed by Department of Family Services Director Steve Corsi. But I was shocked when Storrow reported that both Mead and Corsi said they didn’t know enough about the CoC to comment on its work. That’s a big part of the problem: State government has never taken the lead in the effort to find homeless solutions.

The governor was right when he said the state could provide a lot of assistance to social service agencies — now tied up in providing services — to win grants and increase funding. But he was wrong when he described the state as still in the information-gathering stage. It’s gone far beyond that; let’s dust off the shelves and use what we have already identified as problems and solutions.

That detailed homeless plan of the CoC — one that focuses on a coordinated state-local effort — need not be as far away from reality as Mead believes.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.

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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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