Richard Johnson

A photograph of Cheyenne City Council member Richard Johnson, who represents Ward 3.

On April 5, a monumental task was accomplished with the purchase of the Stagecoach Motel to be added to the COMEA House and Resource Center campus. This addition will add a harm reduction center.

Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug and alcohol abuse. The new program and facility will be called Stages.

So how is this relevant to the city of Cheyenne and Laramie County? In the past year, the topic of homelessness has become one of the key features of the City Council’s goal sessions. Granted, some of the terminology used I did not find suitable when dealing with the topic, but my “woke” language preferences didn’t deter from the mission we all agreed to work on.

Homelessness is an issue in all municipalities, but due to American Recovery Plan Act money and Homeless Emergency Solutions Grants, the City Council, county commissioners and COMEA shelter were able to coordinate an initiative to purchase the Stagecoach Motel, as well as use funding to apply housing to a disenfranchised population.

Since this is a new program that has not been implemented, here is some data on the low-barrier program that was implemented a few years ago in association with the local hospital. These numbers reflect more than substance abuse, but other dilemmas faced.

Medical conditions (2021):

432 total individuals reported having a disabling condition

152 individuals reported a mental health disability

55 individuals reported dealing with a substance use disorder

224 individuals reported dealing with a physical/chronic health condition

20 individuals reported having a developmental disability

186 individuals had medical insurance from only one source

33 had medical insurance from more than one source

78 individuals received income from SSDI

In a recent interview that Robin Bocanegra, the executive director of COMEA, and I conducted on the topic, it was discussed about the use of federal funding to implement and enhance said programs. A question came in regarding the listener’s viewpoints on the taxpayer burdens of COVID relief programs.

The questionnaire was 100% correct in stating that federal dollars are still taxpayer dollars, but as a custodian of those funds, after all the strings attached to them, the purchase of a harm reduction campus was something I could never imagined being available when I became involved in homeless advocacy.

It was also discussed that taxpayer dollars, even in local markets, are used in cases of police, fire and emergency response when working calls for homeless individuals. Those are some front-line issues, but vandalism and incarceration costs also add up.

One positive takeaway from the interview was learning of the continued support of the community to assist COMEA in its day-to-day operations through donations.

One topic that seems to always come up in discussion is everyone’s concept that the homeless are getting a free ride, that they’re a tax burden and the lack of consolidated services. This project will implement more security measures and a rent solution for those currently living there, as well as future occupants.

I am always surprised at the number of native Cheyenne residents that use COMEA services and have occupations. Our current housing market has the county assessor advising that an average home now costs $325,000 and can fetch a market price of $517,000. It’s no wonder some people can’t find homes, and this may be a last resort. A lot of these individuals do have occupations and do pay taxes. These stereotypes are worse than a broken record playing your least favorite song.

There is no doubt that homeless organizations around the world have a very tough mission. If any of us needed a reminder of how close we all are to being placed in destitute situations, the pandemic did that. This mission has only just begun, but I am proud of the City Council, county commissioners and COMEA for coming to the table and having uncomfortable discussions, but all of us being willing to try something different in Cheyenne.

I know this topic doesn’t make for sexy headlines, but all of us, in my opinion, truly did something wonderful for Cheyenne. I ask all of you to wish all of us luck in this endeavor.

If you would like to assist in the new Stages program, please reach out to COMEA at 307-632-3174 or director@comeashelter.org.

Once again, if you have any criticisms or compliments on the city’s role in this project, please contact me at rjohnson@cheyennecity.org.

Richard Johnson is a member of the Cheyenne City Council from Ward 3.

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