The number of people experiencing homelessness continues to rise in Wyoming even as the energy sector recovers from the bust.
During the night of Jan. 27, volunteers counted 873 homeless people across the Cowboy State, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number of people experiencing homelessness in the state has increased each year since 2014. In 2016, a similar measure counted 857 people.
Of those people experiencing homelessness, 41 percent were unsheltered, meaning they were staying in a public or private place not meant to accommodate a sleeping person, like a park bench or a car.
On a January night each year, staff from aid organizations and volunteers scour communities across the country and count the number of people living on the streets, in shelters or in temporary housing. While the data, known as the annual point-in-time count, is not all-encompassing and can be affected by the number of available shelter beds and weather, it is a starting point to gauge the extent of homelessness in a community.
The number of homeless people living in Wyoming spiked in 2011 and 2012, with a high count of 1,813 in 2012. The number dropped significantly in the following years, but has never returned to the lower numbers seen before 2011.
Lyle Konkol, HUD Wyoming field office director, said he couldn’t explain why the homeless population has steadily grown over the past few years despite moderate economic growth.
There were improvements in the numbers, however. The number of homeless families, chronically homeless individuals and homeless veterans showed a decrease from 2016.
“I think we’re making progress,” he said. “It’s a tough business, it’s very hard to operate on little money.”
Nationally, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased by 1 percent from 2016 following seven years of steady improvement. On that one January night, 553,742 people were homeless — 17 for every 10,000 people who live in the U.S. Officials with Department of Housing and Urban Development attributed much of that national growth to sharp rises in a handful of cities where the cost of living is rising, especially along the West Coast.
In Wyoming, service providers have been making extra efforts to help homeless veterans and the chronically homeless into housing as efficiently as possible, Konkol said. By HUD standards, a person qualifies as chronically homeless if he or she has a disability and has been continuously homeless at least a year or has experienced multiple episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time is at least 12 months.
Wyoming workers counted 14 people who qualified as chronically homeless in 2017. That is the lowest number ever counted in Wyoming and is a significant decrease from the 91 chronically homeless individuals counted in 2016.
Similarly, workers counted 63 homeless veterans this year, the lowest number since 2008. Outside of 2012, when workers counted 311 homeless veterans, the number has ranged between 83 and 137 in the past decade.
Konkol attributed some of that success to an increased number of HUD vouchers that subsidize rent for homeless veterans allocated to the state and a program that minimizes wait times for homeless vets.
Despite the improvements, Konkol said Wyoming programs to combat homelessness are underfunded by the federal government. Each year, the state’s HUD office receives about $300,000 for its homeless programs. The funding levels are calculated based on a number of factors, including a state’s population, level of poverty and the point-in-time counts. The lack of federal funding means many programs have to spend more time applying for grants or seeking partnerships with the state or local governments.
“Our funding is tragically low compared to other states,” he said.
In Casper, workers at the Wyoming Rescue Mission have noticed an increase in the number of homeless people as well. But the shelter has also served a growing number of people who are not homeless but come to meals because they can’t afford to buy their own food, said Michael Cavalier, the mission’s communications and events coordinator.
Those clients won’t show up on the annual point-in-time count, he said, but reflect the economic reality in Casper.
He noted that the shelter has also served an increasing number of women who are homeless, but said that he could not pinpoint why.
“The reasons people are homeless varies person to person,” he said. “There’s nothing to say here’s the problem or here are the sets of problems.”