Members of the Riverton Peace Mission and other local organizations approached the Riverton City Council this week requesting government action to support the unhoused and address institutional racism.
“Our No. 1 objective is keeping people alive – preserving life,” RPM chair Allison Sage said during the public comment portion of this week’s council meeting. “We don’t want anyone to die from freezing, or from getting shot, (and) we want to work on policies to undo those kinds of measures.”
He shared a summary of the data the RPM has collected showing disproportionate arrest rates for Native Americans in Riverton as well as Lander and Fremont County.
In Riverton, Sage said, more than 77 percent of arrests involve Native Americans, who make up about 11 percent of the city population.
A lot of those arrests are for public intoxication and outstanding warrants, according to the RPM, and many individuals – often unhoused people – are taken into custody repeatedly for those kinds of offenses.
“It’s really not working,” Sage said.
Wind River Family and Community Health Care has established a shelter south of Riverton where “people can go and warm up and get food and clean up,” he said, and the RPM would like to see a similar resource developed within city limits.
“We are here as a voice for people who don’t have a voice,” Sage said. “We want to work on doing a better service for our people that we see walking up and down the streets. We want to do well for them. We want to decriminalize alcoholism and help it so we can get them treatment, get them help – get them cared for.”
RPM board member Nicole Wagon read from a petition signed by 500 people asking the city to establish a committee “with the goal to analyze and to eliminate institutional racism in policing and other policies that disparately and negatively impact Native Americans.”
The petition also asks the city to “collect and report baseline and ongoing data to monitor whether the goal is being met, (provide) training for the city employees and officials to increase awareness of racism and harms caused, not only for Indigenous people but also to the community as a whole,” and “obtain and develop the resources, systems and/or structures needed to equitably address conflicts without racial bias.”
“We have to come to a meeting of the minds, because the issue is not going away,” Wagon said.
Civil Rights for Wind River secretary Holly Butler expressed support for the RPM statement during the council meeting, adding that it might be helpful if Riverton could hire someone to serve as a liaison between the city and the local Tribes.
The Riverton Police Department used to have an employee like that, former WRFCHC community specialist Liz Salway said, recalling that she was successful in working with that individual several years ago as she provided services to her unhoused clients in the area.
“We got to a point where we were understanding each other, and he was helping me,” Salway said of the officer. “The liaison position that (Butler) was speaking about I feel like really needs to happen.”
Salway no longer works for WRFCHC, but she said she “spends a lot of time still on the streets of Riverton, taking care” of the local unhoused population by offering basic first-aid, food and support.
She told the council about some of her experiences working with the unhoused, including multiple instances when she has been “chased off from the parks” because she “sat with them.”
“People see a person in the park and automatically they feel like they’re a homeless person, they’re not worth nothing, they don’t want them in that area,” Salway said. “And I don’t understand that, because it’s a public area, and nobody should be chased off just because they’re not dressed the right way or (don’t) look the right way – and alcohol is an issue, but I just feel like something needs to be brought to help them, because they’re not getting the first aid they need. They’re not getting the attention that they need.”
Salway said she plans to participate in the RPM’s Summit for Our Unhoused Neighbors this week at the Wind River Casino, which Sage invited the council to attend as well.
“Come and try to formulate a plan so we can do better for our people,” he said. “This problem hasn’t occurred overnight, and we aren’t going to solve it overnight, so we’re really willing to work with all of you, and whoever you designate to help us.”