About a dozen blue mats — not unlike those commonly found in high school gymnasiums — sat stacked on top of one another last week in a storage room at Wyoming Rescue Mission’s emergency homeless shelter.
Most nights, the shelter’s bunk beds are full. Staff pull the mats from the room and lay them on the floor. Clients looking for a safe, warm place for the night find brief respite on the makeshift beds. At least the shelter wasn’t forced to turn them away.
Overcrowding has been an issue at central Wyoming’s only emergency homeless shelter for the past six years, Executive Director Brad Hopkins said. The organization’s downtown Casper facilities don’t have enough beds to meet the need of the homeless population. Some nights, up to 15 men sleep on mats on the floor. There’s a waiting list for the women’s long-term residential program. The crunch becomes even more dire during the cold months.
“As we serve the need, day in and day out, we are simply out of space,” Hopkins said. “There was a time where we were turning women away at the women’s center. It broke my heart.”
After many years of waiting, the shelter will soon have more space. On Tuesday, the nonprofit will break ground on a new 22,000-square-foot facility that will approximately double the number of beds available for the people that come to the mission every year. The new Park Street Center will also offer a larger kitchen and dining room, a computer lab, classrooms and spaces where clients can meet with case managers.
Along with the new facility, the mission will also build a house with 16 beds for its men’s residential program. The women’s residential program will remain in its current facility, though the building will be remodeled.
“We’re looking to position ourselves to serve the community for generations,” Hopkins said.
In total, the new facilities will cost about $8 million: $6 million for the main facility; $1 million to purchase the land, prepare it for construction and begin the expansion; and $1 million for the new men’s residential house and the remodel of the current facilities for the residential programs.
For more than two years, the mission’s staff members have dreamed of a larger space with updated amenities. But just as they started to move forward on their plans, the state’s economy took a hit. The Rescue Mission tabled the idea to wait for better times.
Since January, the organization has raised about $3.5 million toward the expansion. Much of that money has been donated by individuals or charitable foundations. Casper City Council also approved spending about $300,000 in 1-cent funds on the project.
The Rescue Mission is the only emergency shelter for hundreds of miles, Hopkins said. There are shelters in Cheyenne, Jackson and Gillette, but many people experiencing homelessness make their way to Casper and the mission, even if they have to hitchhike. Approximately three quarters of the mission’s clients are Wyoming residents, he said. Between July 2015 and June 2016, the mission provided more than 26,000 beds to those in need and more than 41,000 meals, according to its 2016 annual report.
On a single night in January 2016, Wyoming agencies reported 857 people were homeless across the state — a 48 percent increase from the number recorded in 2010.
The mission was founded in Casper in 1978 and moved into its current building on North Park Street in 1991. The building, a former hotel and brothel, has seen it’s days, said Michael Cavalier, the mission’s communications and events coordinator. The staff originally planned to renovate and expand the existing building, but contractors advised the nonprofit that it would be more efficient to build a new facility, Cavalier said. The current facility will eventually be demolished and the land turned into a parking lot.
The mission currently offers 80 beds, both emergency and for long-term residents participating in the rehabilitation programs. The new facility will have 48 emergency beds for women and children and 73 such beds for men. The residential house will add 16 beds for the men in that program, which gives clients a chance to recover from addiction or trauma while developing life skills.
The new dining room will be able to sit 100 people at once, compared to 35 in the existing room. Rescue Mission staff and volunteers often have to serve meals in shifts because there isn’t enough space for everyone who needs a meal.
Hopkins, who has been the nonprofit’s director since 2012, said the expansion has been a dream for the Rescue Mission’s staff and volunteers for many years.
A frame of stained glass sat on the window in Hopkins’ North Park Street Office last week, the early winter light illuminating a Bible quote:
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”