‘A place to stay’: Hypothermia death renews community concern about lack of emergency housing

The recent death of Richard Lonebear, 52, who was found deceased outside last month in the 1100 block of Main Street in Riverton, has sparked a discussion among some community members about the need for more emergency housing resources locally.

It’s important to note that the circumstances surrounding Lonebear’s death are unknown, so it’s difficult to say whether emergency housing resources could have prevented it.

But the incident did shine a light on a longtime community problem that has only worsened in recent years due to a combination of factors – including a global pandemic, national inflation, limited rentals, and a decrease in local support services that address emergency housing needs.

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Homeless shelter

Riverton’s homeless shelter closed last year due to staffing issues, and although Eagles Hope Transitions still provides some emergency housing there and at its Main Street location, director Michelle Widmayer said she only has two rooms specifically designated for that purpose.

Plus, Widmayer added, all Eagles Hope clients are required to be sober in order to receive services there.

“We are zero-tolerance (for) drugs and alcohol,” she said. “The individual has to be clean coming in.”

That requirement would have made someone like Lonebear, whose blood-alcohol content was .308 at the time of his death, ineligible for a room at Eagles Hope, though Widmayer said “we do our best to take care of those that don’t have anywhere to go, even if we can’t house them – we try to get them somewhere safe.”

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‘Mercy Services’

In the past, people who were intoxicated and in need of emergency shelter in Riverton could go to the Center of Hope alcohol crisis center for help, but that service was eliminated several years ago.

Community prevention specialist Tauna Groomsmith said she has spoken with local religious groups about the possibility of opening a new “detox” facility in town, but they don’t have the space or the capacity for the undertaking.

“They’re not able to really deal with that kind of thing,” she said. “(But) I really think we could get together as a community and figure out how to … make it work.”

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The Wyoming Rescue Mission in Casper offers a program called “Mercy Services” for people who aren’t eligible for other assistance due to intoxication but who “are still in need.”

“We offer that person showers, food and a safe place to sleep,” the organization says on its website. “Check-in for a bed is at 9:45 p.m. and check-out is at 6:15 a.m. Guests are given sack lunches and can return at 9:45 p.m. if our services are still needed.”

Widmayer says she would “love” to offer that kind of program in Riverton.

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“That would be fantastic,” she said. “But it takes a lot to get there.”

What exactly does it take?

Money and trained employees, Widmayer said.

“You have to have trained staff,” she said, responding to some of the “chatter” she has heard from community members about potentially setting up unstaffed warming huts around town for people in need of shelter.

Widmayer said huts like that would “need to be staffed.”

“And who is going to staff it?” she asked.

‘We need to do better’

Widmayer encouraged community members who are “upset” about the lack of emergency housing in town to look for ways to “get some funds” together and “see how we can make this go.”

“It’s going to take all of us to help,” she said, pointing out that the Rescue Mission is Casper has “huge backing” from the community, with “many” residents that “support them” financially.

Eagles Hope does receive some funding from the City of Riverton – though that dollar amount was reduced by 58 percent this year, falling from almost $48,000 down to $20,000.

But Groomsmith said it isn’t only “the government’s job” to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s the community,” she said. “It’s people that need to be doing this – people that care, that have the resources, or know how to leverage the resources, working together.”

Mayor-elect Tim Hancock said several people have reached out him since Lonebear’s death to express concern about the lack of emergency shelter in town, and he agrees with them.

“We need to do better,” Hancock said. “If there is (a) need that we’re not filling right now … let’s talk about that.”

‘Mobilize the troops’

Moving forward, Hancock said he would like to gather more information about the details of local deaths like Lonebear’s in order to more accurately identify the resources that might have helped in each case.

“Let’s … figure out what could have been done differently for these individuals (and see if) we can fill that need,” Hancock said. “Let’s talk about … where should we be putting our resources.”

Riverton Peace Mission board member Leslie Spoonhunter also emphasized the importance of identifying which resources will be most helpful for people in need of emergency housing.

“What are our people who are struggling needing or wanting?” she asked. “What services are we able to provide? What are we willing to provide? And what does the community want?

“(These are) the conversations that we intend to have.”

Those conversations should include more than just Riverton residents, Hancock noted.

“(Let’s get) everybody involved,” he said. “(This is) not just a solution that we just are coming up with on our own. … What can we do to better mobilize the troops, so to speak?”

Motels? ‘Not ideal’

Some community members have suggested paying local motels to house people in need of emergency lodging, but Trumble said organizations like hers don’t usually cover that kind of expense, because if they did, their funding “would be gone instantly.”

“Motels are not ideal,” Widmayer agreed. “(The cost) for a week is what it is for a month at Eagles Hope or somewhere else … and then in another week you’re going to need funding again.”

Instead, Trumble said, “we like to have people find a place, and then we will happily be the entity that pays for (that) place.”

The difficulty comes in “finding that place,” she said.

The First Stop Help Center maintains a list of area landlords and coordinates with other local entities that might have rental space available, but Trumble said inventory tends to be low these days.

“I think for every client that’s evicted there are five to 10 people in line (for their rental),” she said, adding that she has seen “many more evictions” lately in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many residents without the financial flexibility to cope with inflation and increased rental costs.

The uptick in evictions has led to a corresponding increase in the number of people looking for emergency or temporary housing while they find another home.

“That’s the biggest and hardest issue – is where to stay in a temporary situation,” Trumble said. “What are you going to do if you’re a mother with children and you get evicted?”

‘It’s just hard to survive’

In the summer months, Trumble said, it’s “a lot easier” for people to cope with homelessness because they can set up temporary campsites and sleep outside in the local park or Sinks Canyon, for example.

But in the winter, Trumble said, “it’s just hard to survive … especially if you don’t have a car.”

“I know a car isn’t the greatest shelter,” she said. “But people have been known to do it, and run their car for a little bit of gas for heat.”

People without access to a vehicle often end up sleeping “in-between the doorways” of local businesses in order to at least partially protect themselves from the cold and snow, she said.

“How do we help them?” Trumble asked. “We (just) don’t have a place to put people. … There isn’t a place that is open that will take people that don’t have a place to stay.”

When the homeless shelter was open in Riverton, she said, “at least … I could put (people) on the Wind River Transit Authority bus and they could make it over there.”

Now when “worse comes to worst,” Trumble said she has to help people get to the homeless shelter in Casper or Cheyenne – an undertaking that comes with its own struggles due to a lack of local transportation options.

“I hate that people don’t have a facility (to) go to,” Trumble said. “I wish there was a shelter (here).”

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