COMEA House staff, from left, Maintenance Director Paul Monica, Executive Director Robin Bocanegra, and Kitchen and Facilities Manager Scott Coverdale pose for a photo in front of COMEA’s new building Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in Cheyenne. The emergency homeless shelter recently bought the neighboring building, which will be converted to a temporary home to families with children. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – The COMEA House homeless shelter is expanding, and anybody with cable television will be able to watch the whole process unfold.

COMEA announced Thursday it has purchased a neighboring building at 1421 W. Lincolnway to serve as a Transitional Services Center for families with children who are experiencing homelessness. Executive Director Robin Bocanegra said the organization has had its eye on the building for a while – it’s been vacant for several years – but it wasn’t until recently that they were able to fund the purchase.

“We were never able to purchase it, and when COVID-19 came, it became even more pressing because we needed to be able to social distance and isolate sick people,” Bocanegra said. “(With this building) we can serve families in a separate location, and children and parents can all stay together.”

When finished at the end of October, the new building – which will be called the Journey Center – will feature four private bedrooms and a shared kitchenette, TV room/dining room combination, free laundry facilities, men’s and women’s bathrooms and an outdoor playground.

An anonymous donor has pledged to match all monetary donations up to $100,000 of the $500,000 total cost of the project, and the $100,000 pledge was made in honor of Father Carl Beavers, a pivotal figure in the creation of the shelter who died in July.

Some of the other costs associated with the build will be provided by the show “The Fixers,” a reality building show that follows a few builders/designers who take on a remodeling project and complete it in just seven days.

The BYUtv show cast and crew will be in Cheyenne the last week of October to transform the 1421 W. Lincolnway building into the Journey Center, and the episode documenting the build will air sometime in early 2021 – a sentence Bocanegra said she never thought she’d utter.

“It was interesting because they just called us out of the blue (in April), and at first I thought it was a practical joke,” she said with a laugh. “I thought someone was trying to be funny, but I didn’t want to offend them, so I played along. But he gave me a link to see the first season online, and then I thought, ‘Wow, this is legit,’ so after our conversation, he had the executive producer call me.”

Her first question for the producer was “How did you find us?” But it all made sense when the producer explained that “The Fixer” normally focuses on international humanitarian effort projects, so when COVID-19 made traveling overseas impossible, they were looking for a way to shoot domestically so the show wouldn’t be canceled. They researched what states had the least COVID-19 cases, and Wyoming was near the top of the list. When they checked to see if there were any shelters in the capital city, COMEA came up on their radar.

Although the show will bring its own team and some materials, the project requires so much manpower – and so much money – that COMEA is asking for both donations and volunteers to help make up for the show’s limited budget. “The Fixers” production team is currently reaching out to local contractors, plumbers and others who could help with the build, but Bocanegra asked that if anyone has a material or service they’d like to donate, that they contact development@comeashelter.org (for those interested in volunteering) or facilitymanager@comeashelter.org (for those with building materials or services).

Bocanegra said the chance to be on a reality show never would have come around if it weren’t for the pandemic, and also due to COVID-19, COMEA has received additional funds from the federal CARES Act to help families find both temporary and potentially permanent housing.

“It seems as though we were constantly turning families away,” Bocanegra said. “Right now, we have just one family unit, and we do have a family living there, and just in the last couple days, we’ve had people contact us. Normally, we would turn them away, but we have CARES money to put them up in a hotel for a week at a time now. With this (new) facility, we could easily help four families at a time … we want the families to stay as long as they need to, because we look at it more as a transitional program.”

Having a separate facility for families experiencing homelessness is crucial, she added, because of the potential for children to be exposed to distressing and/or violent scenarios in spaces shared with individuals experiencing homelessness. Bocanegra is happy to report COMEA has never had such an incident, but she said that’s no reason not to plan for the worst, which could include an individual experiencing mental health issues having a violent episode in a space such as the TV room or dining area.

The potential of an unmedicated person with a mental illness lashing out in a communal area of the shelter was something brought to COMEA’s attention during a visit by Dr. Robert G. Marbut Jr. last spring. Before he started working for the Trump administration, Dr. Marbut had his own consulting business that traveled Wyoming throughout 2019 to conduct a study of the state’s homeless facilities.

One of the recommendations in the Major Statewide Recommended Strategic Action Steps section of his resulting assessment was that, whenever possible, families with children should be separated from non-family single adults.

“By all measures, the mixing of children with adults who are experiencing chronic homelessness does not meet national best practices, as it is risky, dangerous and unnecessarily increases legal exposure to agencies,” Dr. Marbut wrote in the assessment. “It is very important to note that this type of commingling also creates unhealthy and negative developmental issues in children. Furthermore, this mixing can exacerbate the inefficiencies in the placement process and inhibit optimal utilization of service inventory.”

Dr. Marbut’s report, “Homelessness Needs Assessment and Action Steps for State of Wyoming: A Presentation of Observations, Findings and Recommendation of Strategic Action Steps,” also stated that in an ideal situation, all families with children would be separated at least from non-family adult males, and, when possible, separated from non-family adult females.

“COMEA has been serving families on a lower scale for many years, but we’ve always housed them in our shelter and they’ve had to intermingle with our single residents,” Bocanegra said. “That was better than families on the street, but last year Dr. Marbut came and did his consulting, and he immediately pointed out the danger of those children being in the shelter.”

Niki Kottmann is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at nkottmann@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3135. Follow her on Twitter at @niki_mariee.

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