Central Wyoming Seeks to Help the People Without Housing
On a beautiful day in the spring, Shawna Rodriguez tells how she is raising her three grandchildren alone after losing her husband to cancer. “We’ve always had our own place. I’ve always worked. My husband… we’ve always took care of each other. We’ve always made sure the other one was all right,” she said.
Rodriguez said she never imagined being in this position, much less publicly discussing it. “Then I started thinking, well, how many people are up there like that? Sometimes I feel like that guy on Titanic,” she said, laughing. “Who else is holding on to a door?”
In the middle of March, Rodriguez spoke at the Wind River Casino outside of Riverton for the Summit for Our Unhoused Neighbors. An estimated one hundred individuals showed out to hear Rodriguez speak. Although she is a registered member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, she has trouble getting the assistance she needs. Finding a safe place that will take children might be challenging.
Fremont County officials and tribal program leaders met for a day and a half to discuss potential solutions. Fremont County has a disproportionate number of Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, according to Allison Sage of the Riverton Peace Mission, which organized the event. Sage blamed the psychological effects of colonialism.
“Trauma is probably the biggest factor in everything. Our people have been traumatized for over 500 years since the Europeans came here to this continent. They took our land and kill*d her people,” she said.
According to Sage, one person in Riverton and two in Fort Washakie have reportedly passed away this winter. Central Wyoming saw more snow than in decades, and temperatures dropped below -40 degrees Fahrenheit this winter.
The Northern Arapaho-run clinic, Wind River Family and Community Health Services, repurposed COVID-19 quarantine vans into emergency accommodations for individuals who needed them due to the extreme cold.
Wind River Cares CEO Richard Brannah has noted that his company strives to do more than provide people with a safe and dry place to sleep at night.
“Before a person gets admitted to our homeless shelter, they would be taken to the clinic, given a full physical, because most of the individuals probably haven’t seen a doctor in four or five years,” he said.
During the winter, in an area where traveling long distances might be difficult, the clinic uses its transportation to ensure that patients do not get stuck.
“That’s our whole focus is just keeping people alive non-judgmentally. If people are under the influence of alcohol, maybe drugs, as long as they behave themselves, we allow them to stay,” he said. Wind River Cares is considering a person-centered, holistic approach to assisting the homeless. They understand that many paths lead to homelessness.
This is something that Anne Miller endorses. She represents the Salish, Kootenai, and Ponderay people as an attorney on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. With initiatives like Amnesty Day, her agency tackles the criminal justice system’s contribution to Montana’s homelessness cycle.
“That’s when people can turn themselves in on either failed to appear or warrants for non-payment of fines. If they’re willing to come on that day, they’re guaranteed they’ll walk away from the court,” Miller explained.
Public drunkenness is illegal in Riverton, so a device like that may prove helpful. In the event of an arrest, fees might reach $750. If they don’t pay, an arrest warrant is issued, and the process repeats. The Riverton Peace Mission is working on getting the city of Riverton to remove this.
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According to Miller, Amnesty Day was a huge success. The individual is also linked with mental health counselors and housing options after they come in to deal with their warrant. She also emphasized the need to hear from those experiencing homelessness while designing solutions.
“Not only identifying what their needs are but allowing them to tell us what their needs are,” she said. A recurring sentiment at the summit was that services were compartmentalized and often hard to discover, although Fremont County had programs that addressed food, housing, and mental health concerns.
To continue the discussion in the years to come, Riverton Peace Mission has created a webpage with contact information and materials from the summit. The shortage of affordable housing, the foster care system, and the elimination of housing application costs were all discussed.
The summit has opened a dialogue amongst the programs to coordinate their efforts to help people in most need. On the other hand, Shawna Rodriguez is still looking for a way to provide for herself and her grandchildren.
“It’s okay to live with friends and family. It’s okay but it’s not ours. I guess that’s why I tried so hard to ensure we stuck together,” she said.
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