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Riverton citizens start laying the groundwork for a shelter for unhoused community members

Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Riverton mayor Tim Hancock speaks to a small group during a meeting at City Hall to discuss how to best provide care for unhoused community members.

Last winter, a fifty-two-year-old man named Richard Lonebear died of hypothermia on the streets of Riverton. Lonebear’s death highlighted the lack of options available to those without shelter in the community and has prompted clothing drives and conversations about how to provide more support. Now, community members and local care providers are trying to make sure no one else suffers the same fate.

The newly-formed Riverton Rescue Mission grew out of the town’s informal unhoused task force and is currently trying to set up a shelter that would help prevent deaths related to homelessness and hypothermia. The goal is that the space would be open to all, including those struggling with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders or those who just need somewhere to stay.

On Oct. 24th, the group brought together about fifteen people together at the Riverton City Hall to discuss potential next steps. The town’s mayor Tim Hancock, police chief Eric Hurtado, and city council member Karla Borders attended the meeting. Representatives from SageWest hospitals, Wind River Transportation Authority, the Wyoming Department of Corrections, Riverton Peace Mission, and local churches were also present.

Northern Arapaho tribal member Leslie Spoonhunter is a volunteer with the Riverton Rescue Mission and helping to organize the meeting. She said Lonebear’s death was a wake-up call to do more.

“This is my home and my community, so I just wanted to get involved. Last year in November, there was a gentleman that froze to death in our city. I just want to do something better,” she said.

Second-grade teacher Tiana Payne is another volunteer with the Riverton Rescue Mission. She said the group has four big goals.

“We are here because we want to prevent a death occurring due to weather-related incidents, to help meet the needs of our unhoused neighbors, to provide shelter and food to those in need in our community, and to prevent burdening other cities and communities with our needs,” she said.

Payne added that Riverton currently sends unhoused people to shelters in Casper, Cheyenne and Evanston to receive adequate support. She said one of the hopes with the potential new shelter is that people can stay in their own community and get the help they need.

“It would just be a beautiful sight if we could just take care of our own people here in Riverton,” she said.

Payne shared that the Riverton Rescue Mission is working with the Wyoming Rescue Mission in Casper to help get the project off the ground. The Casper rescue mission is a shelter that provides beds, meals, and both immediate and long-term support to those in need. The two organizations have signed a memorandum of understanding document related to the partnership but have no binding legal ties.

Members from the Wyoming Rescue Mission were present at the meeting via Zoom and will come to Riverton on November 1st to provide in-person mentorship to Riverton Rescue Mission.

Wyoming Rescue Mission’s executive director Brad Hopkins said the Casper shelter typically serves about twelve to fourteen people who are unhoused from Fremont County.

"It’s been an honor to serve the county that you folks live in and be collaborative, and it’s part of our long-term dream to help other communities serve folks in their community,” he said. “From our standpoint, we’re researching and learning from you and looking forward to coming to the community next week.”

During the meeting, the people who were present filled out a survey to help better understand how the various organizations can contribute to preventing deaths related to homelessness and to create space for questions or concerns.

Mayor Tim Hancock said the survey will help figure out who all the different groups in the community can work together.

“Rather than thinking you have to expand, maybe find how your box of responsibilities can border others, so that we end up with a tile of organized groups,” he said. “Rather than having separate silos, we can have us be pushed together and we can have those borders where we can find common ground and work together towards a common goal.”

While there is no definitive timeline for the opening of the shelter, the Riverton Rescue Mission plans to offer unhoused residents free rides to warming huts south of Riverton this winter. Gary Michaud from Wind River Transportation Authority said the organization is committed to donating a used van for rides. Wind River Family and Community Health Care converted old COVID-19 quarantine trailers into warming huts for those in need of temporary shelter last winter.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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