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A Gillette social service organization is helping and giving hope to the homeless

A man sits on a stool getting a hair and beard cut from a woman.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Noel Vanlitsenborgh gives a haircut to Rwainer Wilson at the soup kitchen during the Day of Hope sponsored by the Council of Community Services.

Every January, communities across the country come together and try to estimate the homeless population by going out at night and trying to locate those without a place to stay. Point in Time happens in late January in Wyoming. In Gillette, the Council of Community Services (CCS) also hosted its annual event on the same day this year. It’s meant to connect the local homeless population with several social service agencies to help them get back on their feet.

Day of Hope

A whiteboard lists the menu items for the day at the Day of Hope.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
A sign at the soup kitchen in Gillette marks the Day of Hope.

The soup kitchen is a large, long building that features an open space with a concrete floor. Several long tables sit at one end of the hall, each of which hosts one of 19 different social services agencies. These include the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), a local church group with backpacks of materials and supplies for the homeless, and even a bank offering information on credit and credit repair. At the other end is the kitchen and serving counter which provides food every day of the year except July 4th when a free community hot dog feed takes its place.

The event is called the Day of Hope and is put on annually by the CCS. Tracy Oberts runs CCS’s housing program, which includes the only homeless shelter in northeast Wyoming.

“But as far as the homeless shelter goes, it used to be that they [homeless people] were traveling more so we would get busier in the summer and not have too many in the winter,” she said. “Now, the last three years, four years we've been full.”

A man holds two plastic goodie bags.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Jedidiah Johnson holds two goodie bags that are given out to the homeless during the Point in Time count. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that organizations that receive funding from HUD carry this out.

Obert attributes this in part due to the effects of the pandemic, including the end of rental assistance programs that helped people, including many low-income people, pay rent. Mental illness and substance abuse are other major reasons for homelessness, in addition to tragedy or other life issues that can also put people in a bind. Another aspect is people coming to town searching for high paying jobs in the energy industry but not being able to find them.

“Even those tax credit properties that are supposed to be low income or $1,000 for, like, a two bedroom or something, and nobody can pay that,” Obert said.

On the day of the event, there were 22 people staying at the shelter. There’s a soft limit of 30 days, but residents can stay if they’re working on finding housing or a job. Some have been there since September. But the housing situation isn’t favorable for those who are low-income and looking for a place to call home.

A group of people sits behind tables as others browse the information on the tables.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Representatives of social service organizations sit at tables at the soup kitchen as part of the Day of Hope, a yearly event meant to connect these providers with the homeless population.

Around lunchtime, several people are filing through for food. Brandy Longworth came to Gillette from Michigan and stayed with her sister.

“I live at the homeless shelter at the weigh station,” she said. “I come here and eat lunch.”

The homeless shelter, also known as the weigh station, is just across the street from the soup kitchen. She’s been at the shelter for a few months but said she needed to focus on herself away from family after living with her sister. Right now, she’s trying to figure out a better situation for herself, which includes looking at higher education options.

“I'm thinking about going back to school to become an RN,” she said. “I love helping people.”

Point in Time

The Point in Time count began at 8 p.m. Counters in a few different teams took to the Gillette streets and several other communities statewide in an attempt to get an understanding of how many homeless people there are living in each.

Dawn Dillinger, her husband Jedidiah Johnson, and daughter Madison O’Dell, are driving around Gillette looking at places where homeless people could conceivably seek shelter. It bucks the notion that everyone in a community is doing alright.

“So, there's two Gillettes: there's the side that is travel sports and coal mine money and big jobs and big cars, and then there is a whole other part of the population that is struggling day to day to make it." Dillinger said. "And the line of how quickly you can switch to the other side... You can have a very high paying job and if you get a DUI and you were no longer allowed to drive a train, or you are no longer allowed to drive that forklift or whatever expensive equipment you were doing, you have now lost your $100,000 a year income. What do you replace it with here?”

These conditions and circumstances may lead people to have to find shelter, even if it’s under bridges, in drainage culverts, or in parks.

Dillinger’s family comes to an underside of a bridge. On a pipe, there’s a pair of pants, a pillow and some other signs of someone potentially living there.

Blankets and a pillow under an overpass.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
A makeshift home under a Gillette overpass is discovered by a counting team collecting information for Point in Time. Several communities statewide undertook a count of their homeless populations on Jan. 25.

“Hello! If you’re here, my name’s Dawn and I’m friendly. I’ll just give you a little goodie bag of soap and shampoo and we’ll get out of your way,” she yelled out.

But no one appeared, so the group kept on going. After searching at several other locations on this frigid night, Dawn and her family didn’t find any homeless people. But another of the teams found someone who they transported to the shelter. Another person that they came across declined to be taken there.

The homeless population numbers vary by year and by weather conditions. Dillinger expects the homeless population to rise in 2023, due in part to the end of pandemic rental assistance programs and mental health issues brought on by it.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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