I saw a post on Facebook this morning that I know was meant to be funny, but definitely didn’t leave me laughing.

It was a GIF of someone looking utterly relieved, captioned with the text “When you thought you ran over an animal, but it was just a person.” It got me thinking about how we treat our pets as members of our family, or how an adorable baby in your stroller is no match for the puppy running next to you when it comes to who gets more attention from strangers.

Place an ad for a dog in need of a home next to one seeking donations for a homeless program – which one do you suppose gets more traction? You consider the prospect of bringing the animal into your home – he’s just an innocent puppy who didn’t choose this, after all. And in ignoring the other ad, you run over the person in the process.

What is it about the “homeless” that we find so unappealing and easy to overlook? Are we frightened? Do we really believe they choose to live this way – that a puppy is more deserving of our compassion than a fellow human being?

After nearly a decade at COMEA, I’d be remiss if I glossed over the fact that there are people who choose a transient life. There are folks who prefer an existence free of attachments and responsibility, and resist putting down roots, instead traveling from city to city, utilizing resources at shelters before moving on.

But here’s the thing about the folks who choose this lifestyle: they are the exception. The rule? Ninety percent of individuals experiencing homelessness didn’t choose it, and they lack the means to change their situation. They’re swimming against a riptide of factors like mental illness, addiction, perhaps a disability or lack of job training that keep them from being able to break free from homelessness. They’re people who want the same things most of us do: a job, a home and the security of a stable life.

In 2017, Daphne Willis released “Somebody’s Someone,” a song dedicated to anyone and everyone who knows addiction, mental illness, homelessness or all three. This powerful song serves as a reminder that regardless of why someone is experiencing homelessness, he or she is somebody to someone … someone’s parent. Someone’s child. Someone’s sibling. Someone’s friend.

We lament the troubled relative in our lives, wondering why they can’t accept help, or get sober or stay on their medication. In our frustration, we easily overlook the fact that there are people out there struggling who have no one to worry about them; no one who would notice if they died. Can you imagine that kind of loneliness?

COMEA continues to work tirelessly to help those who have nowhere else to turn, and, as part of that, we’ve adopted a Residency Policy. This directive mandates that our long-term housing and self-sufficiency programs are reserved for residents of Cheyenne, Laramie County and Wyoming. Those seeking shelter who cannot demonstrate ties to Wyoming are limited to seven days of services, during which time we strive to reunite them with family/other sources of support in the community they came from.

Studies have shown that it is more cost-effective and also more successful for the individual to access services where they have a support system or are eligible for public assistance; this policy aims to set up those nonresidents for success after they leave our shelter, while also ensuring we have the resources to help our own homeless population.

The ability to provide these services is heavily reliant on the generosity of our community. Well over half of COMEA’s operating budget comes from fundraising and private donations, as we receive no federal or state funding. City and county support is minimal.

The Residency Program ensures we’re maximizing the assistance we can provide with the funding that’s available to us. We’re focusing on members of our community who are struggling and in need of help, while still offering limited services to those nonresidents who may pass through our shelter.

At the end of the day, we want them all to be somebody’s someone.

Robin Bocanegra is executive director of the COMEA House and Resource Center homeless shelter in Cheyenne. She has held this position since 2010, but has more than 18 years of experience working in human services. Email: director@comeashelter.org.

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