By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
The homeless population in Wyoming appears to be on the rise, according to at least two homeless advocates in the state.
Tracy Obert, housing manager at Council of Community Services in Gillette, said their local emergency shelter’s beds have been full since the beginning of the year.
“Usually in the summertime, we have a little bit of an influx of people, because they’re passing through,” Obert told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “People are always waiting to get into places. When we do get them into an apartment or house, though, the landlords raise the rent so high, they can’t keep up with the pace
Robin Bocanegra, executive director of the Comea Shelter in Cheyenne, said she and her team only noticed an uptick in the homeless population in June, when beds began to fill at a time when normally, they don’t have nearly as many people.
“It’s not just the shelter’s beds that have increased in occupancy, but I’ve also noticed we’re serving more food this time of year,” Bocanegra told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “For the first time in years, our transitional program is completely full. We typically have quite a few open beds, so to be completely full in the summertime is unusual.”
Obert and Bocanegra do not think their respective cities are unique when it comes to an increase in homelessness, at least not in Wyoming. A report recently released by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative showed that the metro Denver area’s homeless population grew by 12.8% between 2020 and 2022.
According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Wyoming had an estimated 612 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, as of January 2020.
Of these 612 people, 50 were made up of family households, 51 were veterans, 91 were unaccompanied young adults between 18 to 24 and 81 were people experiencing chronic homelessness.
Wyoming had the second-lowest homeless population count in the nation, next to North Dakota with 541.
Obert and Bocanegra said they are both seeing a mix of Wyoming residents and out-of-state transients staying at their respective shelters. Obert believed the rising cost of living, from rent to gas to groceries, was the major reason the homeless increase was occurring in the Gillette area.
“I’ve seen apartments as low as $900 a month and I’ve seen them as high as $1,500 per month,” Obert said. “We can only do so much, plus a lot of landlords want income that’s three times the rent price. We can say we should build more affordable housing, but also need wages to keep up with the rising costs.”
Obert has seen many clients come through the shelter who have a full-time job or even two, but still cannot make ends meet.
Bocanegra said in Cheyenne, she has seen similar situations with families who cannot afford rising costs. She said a shortage of rental properties in Cheyenne has also contributed to the homeless population’s increase.
“If someone is living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to find an apartment in this town,” she said. “There’s also very little in the way of services in the state.”
The rising costs in Wyoming and across the nation have also kept some communities from supporting their homeless shelters as they would normally, such as the case with Cheyenne’s Comea Shelter, Bocanegra said.
“People have to take care of their own first,” Bocanegra said. “We’re really struggling right now because people don’t have discretionary money. But with the increase in need comes an increase in services, which increases our budget.”