CHEYENNE – The Willow Room at the Laramie County Library was basically at capacity Tuesday night as guests struggled to find a seat or a good place to stand.
The crowd of a few dozen people gathered in the meeting room on the first floor of the library to hear speakers from all walks of life discuss an important issue: homelessness in Cheyenne, Laramie County and Wyoming.
The Cheyenne Inter- faith Council was hosting the event, which was called “Humanizing Homelessness.”
The Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave, president of the organization and minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, told the audience this was intended to be part of weeknight community-focused events, an “experiment” of sorts.
Attendees were given handouts that contained what the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as homelessness, a graphic of how homelessness has changed in the country during the past decade, and the Homelessness Needs Assessment and Action Steps for the state of Wyoming, which was conducted by Dr. Robert Marbut Jr. of Marbut Consulting.
HUD defines homelessness as living outside or in other places not meant for long-term occupation, such as an emergency shelter, a domestic violence shelter, a motel or hotel paid for by a voucher, or in a transitional housing program for homeless persons.
Six speakers gave short presentations Tuesday evening about what their organizations do in the area and how they help people who are either homeless or living at the poverty level. They included Robin Bocanegra of COMEA House homeless shelter; Lori Kempter of Family Promise of Cheyenne; Barbara Fecht of Needs, Inc.; Brenda Birkle of My Front Door; Amy Spieker of the Laramie County Community Partnership; and a woman currently staying with Family Promise.
Marbut’s findings were discussed by Bocanegra, COMEA House’s executive director. She pointed out Marbut’s recommendation that COMEA should stop co-mingling and co-housing families and single adults in the same building, which they soon implemented.
“At first we thought the important aspect was for them to be under a roof,” Bocanegra said. “But then (Marbut) told us that the kids are exposed to too much trauma. He explained what those exposures are and how that can affect children.”
Bocanegra mentioned that COMEA now has a special area that can house one or two families with a private entrance so they don’t have to interact with single adults. She also said COMEA provides food directly to that living space.
Bocanegra also discussed what programs COMEA offers to homeless adults, such as the emergency shelter, where staff and volunteers provide basic services like food, a hot shower and a bed for up to one week; the Journey phases, where they work with people who have expressed a desire to rejoin the workforce and escape homelessness; and the pay-to-stay program, where they will provide housing to single men and women for a fee while teaching them financial responsibility and literacy.
The next speaker was Ingrid, a woman who is staying with her 7-year-old daughter at Family Promise of Cheyenne.
“I’m kind of the face of homelessness right now,” she said. “It wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t get in this situation because I was lazy or had any habits. Life just gets in the way sometimes.”
The mother of five spoke about becoming homeless, stating that she’s disabled after a nearly life-threatening car accident. Ingrid said she is married to a man who lives in the Dominican Republic, which means she has spent much of her time and resources dealing with immigration.
“I got a phone call while I was in the Dominican Republic from one of my daughters who told me she’d been attacked in New York City, and it was posted online,” she said. “I had to leave my husband to give her support. I saw her a couple days after she went in front of a grand jury. The person who attacked her was indicted on seven felony charges. We spent the day together and we planned to meet a few days later for my birthday.”
They never did. Nearly one year later, Ingrid doesn’t know where her daughter is. She noted the FBI and Interpol are involved in the case, as they believe her daughter might have been trafficked.
But after dealing with immigration, a disability and trying to find her daughter, Ingrid’s resources were exhausted. She came to Cheyenne looking for help.
She expressed great love and admiration for Family Promise executive director Kempter, who has helped Ingrid tremendously during this difficult time, she said. Ingrid added that another one of her daughters is now doing well in her first couple weeks at one of the local elementary schools, which has been a relief.
While life is still a struggle for Ingrid – who mentioned that she will soon have to have surgery to remove a possibly cancerous tumor – it’s much better than it has been, she said.
“It’s a hard road, but I’ve been very blessed by Lori,” she said.
Kempter discussed the number of homeless youth in the state – more than 1,000 children – and the services that Family Promise provides for families with minor children, such as working with them on finances, and helping with résumés and job searches.
While she is proud of the work her organization has done since its inception in 2001, she lamented the fact that they can only help three families at one time, and the waitlist grows longer every week.
“When you call us and ask for shelter, and I tell you that you’re 15th on my list, you’re going to cry and hang up,” she said. “That’s not OK. It’s never OK for us to turn children away and tell them ‘You have no place to sleep tonight.’”