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Central Wyoming looks to help the unhoused population

Shawna talks about what it's like trying to provide for her three grandkids while trying to find a place to stay without the income from her late husband.
Taylar Stagner
Shawna talks about what it's like trying to provide for her three grandkids while trying to find a place to stay without the income from her late husband.

On a crisp spring day, Shawna Rodriguez explains that after losing her husband to cancer last year, she was left to take care of her 3 grandkids.

“We've always had our own place. I've always worked. My husband… we've always took care of each other. We've always made sure the other one was all right,” she said.

Two young people embrace.
Shawna Rodriguez
Lonnie and Shawna early in their relationship. They were together for around 35 years.

Rodriguez said she never thought she would be in this situation, let alone speaking out about it.

“Then I started thinking, well, how many people are up there like that? Sometimes I feel like that guy on Titanic,” she said laughing. “Who else is holding on to a door?”

Rodriguez shared her story during the Summit for Our Unhoused Neighbors at the Wind River Casino outside Riverton in mid-March.

Around 100 people gathered to listen to Rodriguez’s story. She’s an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho tribe but still finds it hard to get adequate help. It's hard to find a shelter that accepts kids.

A group of people sits behind a table covered in a black tablecloth. A woman on the end speaks into a microphone.
Taylar Stagner
Shawna Rodriguez speaks about losing her husband Lonnie Harris.

During the day and a half summit, tribal program representatives and Fremont County officials brainstormed ideas.

Allison Sage is with the Riverton Peace Mission, the group that put on the event, and said there’s a high amount of Indigenous people who experience homelessness in Fremont County. Sage said that’s in part because of the trauma of colonization.

“Trauma is probably the biggest factor of everything. Our people have been traumatized for over 500 years since the Europeans came here on this continent. They took our land and killed her people,” she said.

Sage said that three people have died over the winter: one in Riverton, and two in Fort Washakie. This winter’s temperatures got down to -40 F, and central Wyoming saw the most snow in decades.

In response to the cold temperatures, Wind River Family and Community Health Care, the Northern Arapaho-run clinic, converted old COVID-19 quarantine trailers into temporary housing for those in need of shelter.

Richard Brannah, CEO of Wind River Cares, said his organization tries to do more than give individuals a warm place to sleep.

“Before a person gets admitted to our homeless shelter, they would be taken to the clinic, given a full physical, because most of the individuals probably haven't seen a doctor in probably four or five years,” he said.

The clinic also utilizes its transportation to keep people from becoming stranded, a common problem for those without access to a vehicle during the winter in a place where walking long distances can be dangerous.

“That's our whole focus is just keeping people alive non-judgmentally. If people are under the influence of alcohol, maybe drugs, as long as they behave themselves, we allow them to stay,” he said.

Wind River Cares is looking at a holistic approach to helping people experiencing homelessness, and meeting people where they are. They realize there are a lot of different reasons why someone may end up needing shelter.

Anne Miller agrees. She is an attorney with Flathead Reservation in Montana and serves the Salish, Kootenai, and Ponderay people. Her office addresses the criminal justice system and its role in perpetuating homelessness in Montana with things like Amnesty Day.

“That’s when people can turn themselves in on either failure to appear or warrants for non-payment of fines. If they're willing to come on that day, they're guaranteed they'll walk away from the court,” Miller explained.

Something like that could be helpful in Riverton wherepublic intoxication is a crime. If people get arrested, they get charged up to $750. If they can’t pay it, then they have a warrant out for their arrest, perpetuating a cycle. This is something that the Riverton Peace Mission is advocating for the City of Riverton to get rid of.

Miller said Amnesty Day has been a success. Plus, once the person comes in to address their warrant, they get connected with mental health counselors and housing opportunities. She said listening to those affected by homelessness is also the key to successful programming.

“Not only identifying what their needs are but allowing them to tell us what their needs are,” she said.

Fremont County has programs that address hunger, housing, and mental health issues, but a common feeling during the summit was that resources were siloed and sometimes hard to find.

Riverton Peace Mission now has a web page of contact information and resources from the summit in order to further the conversation in the years to come. Other topics of discussion included the foster care system, the lack of affordable housing, and getting rid of housing application fees.

The summit has started a conversation between the programs to better serve those most in need. But Shawna Rodriguez is still left trying to find a solution to have her own place with her grandkids.

“It's okay to live with friends and family. It's okay but it's not ours. I guess that's the reason why I tried so hard to make sure that we stuck together,” 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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