Home on the Range: Homelessness and Affordable Housing in Wyoming, Part 3

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Casper, WY -- Advocates for the homeless say the fact that they are more often out-of-sight in a rural state like ours means people -- and even our leaders-- don't always realize the extent of the problem. And in the past, Wyoming hasn't always collected enough information. But that's changing, with a challenge from the Governor to take action. In the third and final part of "Home on the Range," News 13 looks at solutions for solving homelessness in Wyoming.

Casper Housing Authority Executive Director Kim Summerall-Wright says there's often a misconception about who the homeless are. "Here in Wyoming, all we ever hear about is that we take care of our own, and the reality is that these people that we're talking about, they are our own. They're us!" said Summerall-Wright.

The path towards "making them our own" isn't clear though. The point-in-time homelessness count January 22nd was one step toward understanding the problem.

Governor Matt Mead said in July 2013 solving homelessness was one of his priorities. That initiative is why Lyle Konkol, Wyoming's Housing and Urban Development administrator says we're finally turning a page.

"I wanted to pinpoint it and say this is something we can attack, we can do better on, and I'm hoping we will have results and I think we've made some progress already and we look for more progress in the future," said Mead.

Department of Family Services Homeless Coordinator Brenda Lyttle says some of the urgency comes from feeling helpless. "We don't know what to do, and we want to do something," she said.

Lyttle, who is tasked with developing a ten-year plan and now serves on the Homeless Collaborative Board, says local agencies haven't always coordinated with each other very well. That, mixed with insufficient quality data means over the past several years Wyoming has been penalized. Konkol says in 2013, Wyoming was eligible for $758,000 in federal HUD funds, but only received $348,000.

"We don't really know what our homeless population looks like in a way that we can really come up with some solutions," Lyttle explained.

Just defining homelessness is tricky. Amanda Huckabay, Client Relations Manager for the Casper Housing Authority, invited News 13 to ride along during the point-in-time homeless count. She explained that different federal agencies have different standards. "Greta [Hinderliter] with the school district, she obviously operates under the Department of Education and their definitions are a lot broader than HUD's are... According to her guidelines some of these people are homeless even though according to us or HUD they're not," said Huckabay.

For example, if camping trailers have individual water hookups, HUD does not consider the people living inside homeless, so our stop at the Fort Caspar campgrounds was brief. Our group came across a tent by the river after two hours of searching, but no one was "home."

One solution that's being considered is called Housing First. It's the idea that if you provide housing and a caseworker first, no questions asked, you can then work on other issues like joblessness, addiction or mental illness. "We have had an experimental arm of that program that has been done down here in Cheyenne that has been successful," Lyttle said.

And it's believed to actually be cheaper than always responding to emergencies, putting people in jail, the ER or rehab. Utah's implementation in a ten-year-plan has been successful so far. "It's one of the programs that I want to look at right away," Lyttle added.

Tuesday, the Wyoming Homeless Collaborative elected a board of directors. One of them is Casper City Manager John Patterson who has seen the Housing First initiative first-hand while working in Utah.

But Brenda Lyttle says because of federal budget cuts, even with better organization Wyoming won't be able to apply for that additional money the state has missed out on in the past.