Wyoming struggles to develop plan to address homelessness

2013-03-31T23:15:00Z 2013-04-01T07:25:04Z Wyoming struggles to develop plan to address homelessnessBy BENJAMIN STORROW Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 31, 2013 11:15 pm  • 

GREEN RIVER, Wyo. – Cathie Hughes is a woman with seemingly limitless energy. But she sounded dejected when she answered the phone in early March.

Hughes, CEO of Southwestern Wyoming Recovery Access Programs, learned the previous night that funding for her organization’s emergency homeless shelter would be cut because of a technicality, threatening the closure of the only shelter in Lincoln, Sweetwater, Sublette and Uinta counties.

The SW WRAP shelter was small, sleeping six people in its men’s facility and four in its women's/families' facility. Nonetheless, its closure would mark the disappearance of the only safety net for the homeless in southwestern Wyoming.

A native New Yorker, Hughes has a loud voice, and when the conversation turns to the agency she founded, her enthusiasm and rambling, staccato speech can leave a listener breathless. On the phone in early March, she spoke slowly, softly.

“The people like the Derek story, the Isabel story,” she said, referring to two clients who had lived at the shelter, “I can’t help them.”

On a January night in 2012, more than a thousand people in Wyoming went to bed without a roof over their heads, according to a Star-Tribune review of the federal point-in-time homeless count statistics.

Wyoming shelters a smaller percentage of its homeless than any other state, even as the rate of homelessness is rising. It is one of a few states without an official homelessness coordinator and annually loses hundreds of thousands of federal grant dollars because it lacks a strategy to combat the issue.

The fragmented response leaves the burden largely on small, community-based nonprofits and local governments that may not be up to the challenge.

“I think a lot of nonprofits right now are very short on funds because we are getting cut in different ways,” said Brenda Eickhoff-Johnson, executive director of Community Action of Natrona County, a social-service agency. Developing a statewide homelessness strategy is a complex, time-consuming task, she said, adding, “It is hard to find the staff to get these things done.”

In Green River, Hughes ultimately decided to close the SW WRAP shelter. The organization could not afford to operate it without the federal money, she said. She described telling the last man living at the shelter that the facility would be closing. The man wept at the news, she said.

“I found myself telling him not to worry, that we weren’t going to put him out on the street,” Hughes said.

The best she could offer him: a voucher to stay at a motel for up to seven days.

Last in the nation

In 2012, Wyoming sheltered 26 percent of its homeless population, or 475 of 1,813 people – the lowest rate in the country. California, with the second-worst rate, sheltered 35 percent of 130,898 people. Five of Wyoming's neighboring states sheltered more than 60 percent of their homeless in 2012. Colorado sheltered 43 percent of 16,768 homeless.

Such figures come from the federally mandated point-in-time count, an annual homeless count compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count is usually conducted one day in January.

The federal numbers are not perfect, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, and one of several experts the Star-Tribune asked to review the federal data. Someone who is homeless today could find a home tomorrow and vice versa, she noted.

Some states are better at counting the homeless than others, making cross-state comparisons tricky, Roman said. Wyoming’s small population also means that a relatively small increase in the number of homeless could dramatically change the percentage of unsheltered people, she said.

Still, Roman called Wyoming’s numbers “surprising.”

“Colder states tend to shelter a higher percentage of people for obvious reasons,” she said. “For a place like Wyoming to have higher unsheltered rates is counterintuitive.”

Housing first

When I met Isabel Cortez in mid-February, she was 2 ½ months removed from jail, where she spent three months for slapping her 14-year-old daughter, she said.

A native of Oregon, Cortez had no family that could bail her out in Green River. She was released only after SW WRAP was able to guarantee her a spot in its women's/families' shelter, Hughes said.

“I made a bad choice that day,” Cortez said. “I never hit my kids before.”

Her children are now in Department of Family Services custody.

Cortez got her own apartment the day before I met her. She now works as a crisis intervention manager at SW WRAP. When a person comes through the door, it’s her job to listen, record his story and point him to the services he needs – just as the agency did for her. If all goes well, she will get her children back in June.

SW WRAP’s mission is to provide what Hughes calls “wraparound services” to people like Cortez. It offers everything from mental and substance abuse counseling to job referrals and everyday essentials like toiletries and clothes. Housing is an important part of that equation, Hughes said.

“The first thing we did is get her off the street, make sure she had a place to sleep,” Hughes said. “And at that point it takes a couple of weeks for the world to stop spinning.”

The need for longer-term housing is one of the reasons SW WRAP opened its shelter in 2008, Hughes said. The shelter was funded by private donations until last year, when the agency used a $27,000 federal grant to help pay the rent. It was not enough to cover staff time, Hughes said.

“We have a couple little rented apartments that we use for a stopgap in the entire region,” she said. “To do anything on a scale that is larger I would have to have more resources, more staff.”

Shelters across the state are struggling to provide enough beds, especially for families. Many nights, Central Wyoming Rescue Mission in Casper has a waiting list of five to eight families hoping to get into the family shelter, said Brad Hopkins, the shelter’s executive director.

“There is a big need,” he said.

State of disarray

All states are required by the federal government to have a Continuum of Care network, a group of nonprofit and government agencies that work together to coordinate homeless services.

Wyoming’s CoC is plagued by a lack of cooperation and an inability to develop a homelessness plan, according to many of its members. It lacks a governing charter -- a federal requirement -- and many of its membership slots are unfilled, they say.

“I think we need to come together as a collaborative instead of trying to outdo each other,” said Tracy Obert, manager of housing programs for the Council of Community Services in Gillette. “I know Rock Springs needs a homeless shelter. We need to help get Rock Springs a homeless shelter instead of worrying about my own homeless shelter.”

HUD grades CoCs on planning and performance to determine funding. In fiscal year 2011, Wyoming’s network scored a 57.5 out of 100. The average national score was 74.

Wyoming should have received $682,000 based on its population, poverty levels and other demographic indicators last year, said Lyle Konkol, director of HUD’s Wyoming Field Office. But because the state does not have a detailed plan to address homelessness, it got less than half – about $338,000. This year, the state will get $243,155 after one of the network’s four ongoing projects was not renewed.

Unlike many states, Wyoming government does not lead its CoC. (In more populous states, which often have multiple CoCs, this task can fall to cities.) The state of Montana hires a consultant, while South Dakota’s housing authority office runs its network.

Mary Randolph of the Wyoming Business Council led Wyoming’s CoC for seven years before resigning in January. The Wyoming network is now without a leader.

The business council thought her time was better invested elsewhere, said Randolph, executive director of the organization’s Rural Development Council. But she admitted that a lack of cooperation from other agencies played a role in her resignation.

“The second thing was really pulling this Continuum of Care together and getting people to do the work. It is time for a fresh new look at it,” she said. “We haven’t had a plan to address homelessness for a lot of years.”

Many homeless advocates believe Wyoming should take charge of its CoC. The state’s nonprofits do not have the capacity or technical know-how to lead the network, they said. Even if they did, there is little incentive for them to assume the role. The position is unfunded.

“If this thing is to stay afloat, the state has got to get involved,” said Konkol, the Wyoming HUD director.

The state is considering that. In January, Gov. Matt Mead tapped Steve Corsi to lead a homelessness task force. Corsi is director of the Department of Family Services.

Thus far, the group has met once.

In separate interviews, Mead and Corsi said they did not know enough about the CoC to offer any comment. Neither offered any potential solutions to address homelessness in Wyoming. The state is still in the information-gathering stage, they said.

Mead said he believes state government has a role to play in coordinating homeless services. Social-service agencies are focused on providing essential services such as food and shelter, making it difficult to secure grants, he said. The state could offer such agencies technical assistance and help them win more funding.

“You hate to think there are grants out there that they can get that they don’t know about or they don’t have technical expertise to do,” Mead said.

Shelters' closure

Hughes founded SW WRAP in 2008 because she thought southwestern Wyoming lacked support services for the poor. For two decades prior, she worked as an information technology consultant, offering companies advice on how to improve software systems. She found the work unrewarding. Hughes is ordained in the Jerry Savelle Ministries International church and felt her calling was to help people.

People who work with Hughes in Sweetwater County say she is a good-hearted woman who is performing valuable work in the community. But others familiar with the closure of the organization’s shelters wondered if SW WRAP was dealing with an issue beyond its capacity.

Funding for both shelters was cut because they were not properly registered under the requirements of the Community Service Block Grant program, which provided the $27,000 in funding, according to state and local officials.

The case raises the question of whether small organizations, no matter how good their intentions, are able to address an issue as complex as homelessness.

SW WRAP cannot afford to hire a person with the necessary expertise in federal grant funding, Hughes said. She alone can’t ensure that “every single ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ is crossed to provide the type of services we are providing,” she said.

“You get someone like me who has passion and enthusiasm, but if I don’t have support infrastructure around me in my agency or as a part of a coalition, then it’s next to impossible to provide the level of services we need in our communities,” she said.

Hughes is hoping to raise money from local sources to reopen and operate the shelters. She doesn’t want the federal-funding hassle.

In the meantime, southwestern Wyoming has no homeless shelter.

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