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A death highlights the lack of options available to those without shelter in Fremont County

Three people stand in front of a grassy area where winter clothes are spread out.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
April Dawn White (middle) attends a warm clothing drive in late November with Annie Willow and Rod Moon.

Boxes of coats and hats lay open on the grass as the smell of breakfast burritos and coffee cut through the cold air. Food and hot drinks were being provided as April White dug through the piles of warm winter clothes to help with many cold nights ahead.

"I do what I have to do to make my money. You know, I clean rooms and clean houses. I'm a good cleaner. I do whatever I have to do to make it," said White.

White is excited to have access to blankets and coats during the Riverton Peace Mission's winter clothes drive. She's been homeless since her trailer burned down, and she spoke of how she and her friends get through cold Wyoming winters.

A group of people look through boxes of winter clothing in a grassy area.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
A group at Riverton City Park goes through boxes of clothing and blankets to keep themselves warm during the winter months.group at Riverton City Park goes through boxes of clothing and blankets to keep themselves warm during the winter months.

"I've been homeless for a minute and it's hard out here but almost all of us guys, we all take care of each other, we all look out for [each other], we all use body heat to keep each other warm. We do it all," she said.

The clothes drive was a success, providing around 50 people with items like coats, sleeping bags, and winter weather gear. It was the first time the Riverton Peace Mission held a clothes drive.

Carol Harper is with the organization. She helped collect donations and said the recent death of a community member made their group want to take action.

"People are aware that this is an issue and so the city needs to address it. Not tomorrow, not in a month, now. They need to address it now. Because tonight, it's gonna get really cold again," she said.

In early November, a man who was homeless died near Main Street in Riverton. The death has started more discussion on what's available in Fremont County for those in need of housing. The answer is very little.

In the last few years, a handful of deaths have happened due to hypothermia. Some of those people were: Horace J. Big Medicine Jr, Robert Tillman Jr, Benjamin J Piper, and Myron Chavez.

There is only one shelter option in Riverton: Eagles Hope Transitions. It doubles as a transitional housing facility for those recovering from substance abuse.

Michelle Widmayer, the executive director of Eagles Hope Transitions, said she only has 16 beds and the waitlist is long.

"We have never any less than 50, usually about 75 [on the waitlist]. And during COVID, and during our peak times, which is winter, it can be 95 people," said Widmayer. "It can take up to six months to get into Eagle."

Widmayer said people can stay around two years at Eagles Hope so there isn't a lot of turnover in who stays at the facility. There are also only three full time employees.

"We're making it, barely, but we're still making it. Providing the services that we need to provide. Funding is always going to be something that we always need. And we always need more of," she said.

The closest dedicated homelessness shelter is in Casper, around two hours away. And with no public transportation that way, many people experiencing homelessness are stranded.

A tan building with red trim and the sign "Volunteers of America Northern Rockies" over the door. It's snowing and there is snow on the ground.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
The Volunteers of America Northern Rockies office in Riverton, Wyoming during the first big snowstorm of Fall 2022.

Malcolm Bauer is with Volunteers of America in Riverton. He's worked with veterans in need of housing assistance. He said Riverton needs a dedicated homeless shelter.

"We don't have the adequate funding to put towards the homeless shelter," he said.

He said he's served around 150 people in the last year and that homelessness is on the rise and might get worse.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program through the Wyoming Department of Family Services is no longer taking applications. The COVID-era program helped families pay for utilities. Bowers said that the program helped people in the community when everyone lost their jobs during COVID.

"And it is ending here shortly. So once that ends, the rise of homelessness is going to go up here in Fremont County and across the state," he said.

With food and gas becoming more expensive than ever, Bowers said you'd be surprised how many people are close to being without shelter.

"I don't know what we're gonna do with our rise in homelessness, and just the rise of cost of living has gone up so much that, who knows, tables might turn and we all might end up becoming homeless," he said.

Back at Riverton City Park, April White said she just needs a place to stay to get her life back on track. She said she has a job, she's a hard worker, and until she can find somewhere to stay she will make due.

"Walk my stuff to where it's safe and then, I'm gonna be walking around again," she said.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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