A growing homeless population has the city of Casper taking notice, with what Mayor Bruce Knell estimates to be a population of around 200 people now roaming the city’s streets and parks, causing a situation he describes as “a mess.”
The Casper City Council is considering tightening its urban camping and squatting rules to make it less inviting for homeless people to take up shelter in the city, at least until the city can provide more mental health and substance abuse services for this population.
“We know very well we cannot litigate our way or arrest our way out of the problem, but our police need some teeth to start dealing with the squatting,” he said. “They’re just causing so many problems.”
What that shelter looks like can come in a variety of forms.
One of the most glaring examples is destruction Knell said homeless people have done to the local Econo Lodge motel, which is vacant and had been previously foreclosed due to flooding.
What the homeless people squatting there did to the property would cost millions to fix and is much worse than any damage caused by water, Knell said.
“They destroyed everything,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
The city had to condemn the property and the bank that owns the motel was forced to board it up to keep squatters out.
“It was uninhabitable, and it was unsafe,” Knell said.
Other Places Too
Many homeless also loiter in downtown Casper. He said city staff have picked up around 500 pounds of human feces from around the downtown area.
Others occupy local parks and bike paths, while some are less visible and sleep in their cars.
Knell also attributes a certain amount of crime to the homeless population.
“In desperate times people do desperate things, and unfortunately we’re the ones left having to deal with it,” he said.
Homelessness is most often tied to deeper issues like mental health and substance abuse disorders. Often, a person will lose a lifeline provided by family or a friend and quickly fall through the cracks of society.
Knell said he doesn’t view the city’s homeless shelter, Wyoming Rescue Mission, as part of the problem and believes it provides a positive service to the community. Because of the shelter, he said there’s always been at least a small contingency of homeless in Casper, but the current situation is unprecedented.
He said the problem specifically lies with the homeless who come to Casper to stay at the shelter but are either kicked out or can’t get in and then never leave the city.
“There’s a certain part of the homeless population, whether substance abuse or mental illness, that is getting them to where they don’t want to conform to society’s rules,” Knell said. “When they do that they’re not allowed to go in the shelter, which means they’re just out and about in our community raising hell.”
Many homeless have been found squatting in abandoned properties lacking running power and water.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s third-world country stuff happening in Casper, Wyoming,” Knell said.
The council is considering changing city code to require suspected squatters to get written consent from an owner of a property and setting a time limit for camping on private property, even for those who have permission to be there.
The council also has asked city staff to draft an ordinance that would make it illegal to camp within a certain distance of the North Platte River.
Knell said the council could start voting on these proposals as soon as its next meeting on Tuesday.
Part Of A Larger Problem
Homelessness has been on the rise for a number of decades throughout the country, and in particular the West in cities like Denver and Los Angeles.
In July, the city of Cheyenne passed an ordinance prohibiting people from camping in one of the capital city’s largest camps from midnight to 5 a.m.
Even the city of San Francisco has started clearing tent encampments until there are more shelter beds than homeless people.
“They’re tired of it too,” Knell said.
According to ABC News, frustration over homeless tents is playing out in courtrooms throughout the West. In 2018, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping outdoors when there is nowhere else for them to go.
Here To Help
What separates homeless mitigation efforts in places like San Francisco compared to Casper, Knell said, is the fact that he believes Casper is actively trying to help its homeless population while San Francisco is looking to push its population out of city limits.
A Homeless Coalition has formed in Casper that aims to provide solutions to many of the problems this community deals with. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, the group is working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to strengthen Casper’s relationship with the agency to secure more federal money for local homeless relief and prevention efforts.
Knell’s theory is that many homeless people have been attracted to Casper through word of mouth.
“They have a little bit of a network going on and I think they just talk to each other and say, ‘Casper is a great place, they don’t bother you here,’” Knell said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.