CHEYENNE – It’s no question whether affordable housing is an issue in Cheyenne. Just ask the folks from My Front Door, Family Promise, the COMEA Shelter, Habitat for Humanity and the Unaccompanied Students Initiative.

Everyday, their staff helps residents, local families and kids through crises surrounding one of the most basic needs in life: a place to call home. Housing needs have become more intense than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented economic downturn and put residents out of work.

“People don’t realize it, but there are families in Laramie County that are sleeping in their cars,” said Rachel Martinez, executive director of Family Promise, which serves families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

“It’s a very serious problem, to the point where every week, we’re getting calls from families that we cannot shelter because we don’t have the space. And we are calling into other communities to see if they have space. It’s really concerning, because the families that are being affected are established in Cheyenne, and they’re now facing homelessness because of the pandemic and the ripple effect that that caused,” Martinez continued.

But looking forward, the question the county faces is: What can we do about it?

Unfortunately, finding the answer to that question is more complicated, but Laramie County’s housing-oriented nonprofits hope that the Affordable Housing Awareness Week events scheduled for this week, June 21 through June 25, are a good place to start.

Each nonprofit will be highlighted one day next week, taking residents through the continuum of care available for residents facing housing issues. Monday will kickoff with an Unaccompanied Students Initiative luncheon, as they focus on giving youth facing homelessness the tools they need to move forward in life, and the week will wrap up with My Front Door, which aims to put residents on a path to home ownership and self-sufficiency through education and mentorship.

The hope is that raising awareness in the community can help shed light on the problems faced by our neighbors, encourage donations and volunteering with housing-focused agencies, and provide solutions other communities have found to address these problems.

“Any one of us can stand on a mountaintop and scream, ‘We need more affordable housing.’ But if there’s a group of people doing that, it strengthens the message and it also sends the message that community partnership is what it’s going to take to get this taken care of,” Dan Dorsch, Habitat’s special projects coordinator, said.

To help get that message across, one of the main themes of Affordable Housing Awareness Week will be education. Even in Cheyenne, stigmas around affordable housing still exist and exacerbate the problem. The “not in my backyard” phenomenon is the perfect example of this, having come up in city council discussions on a number of affordable housing development proposals in recent years, sometimes affecting the outcome.

That stigmatization hits especially close to home for Unaccompanied Students Initiative Coordinator Michelle Coronado, who sees everyday how incredible and hardworking their teenage students are, all while overcoming homelessness and building a better future.

“Just because they’re out in the streets doesn’t mean they’re causing trouble. … Their main priority is: Where am I going to get my next meal? Where am I going to sleep? And can I make it to school on time?” Coronado said. “The majority of these kids still do promote their academic success, because they know that’s their ticket out.”

Brenda Birkle, executive director of My Front Door, said a better term for affordable housing would be “wage-supported” housing, which leaves behind the negative associations and better describes why the developments are needed. By definition, affordable housing is simply spending 30% or less of your monthly income on rent or mortgage payments.

By that threshold, some essential and skilled workers struggle to make ends meet in Laramie County.

According to the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 housing report, 10% of residents in Laramie County spend more than half of their monthly income on housing, and 18% of residents spend between 31% and 50% of their income on housing. That means about a third of all residents who pay rent or their mortgage are in need of a more affordable place to live, and the pandemic likely made those figures worse.

“It’s where our CNA’s and our grocery store workers and our snowplow drivers sleep at night. It’s not a question of ‘Do you want them in your community?’” Birkle said. “You need them in the community.”

Throughout Affordable Housing Awareness Week, residents will have the chance to learn more about what these housing-focused nonprofits do in the community and what solutions might be available, with a few open houses scheduled to showcase the fruits of their labor and the real life benefits their work has on those in need.

When they’re building a home for a resident or veteran, Habitat for Humanity invites volunteers to come and work alongside them, which has benefits for each party involved. Hugh Ford, working with Habitat by way of AmeriCorps, hopes Affordable Housing Week can have that same effect, of bridging the gap and finding more similarities than differences with residents struggling with housing.

“They’re just our neighbors; they’re just normal people,” he said. ”All these open houses during the affordable housing awareness week serve a similar purpose. People will be able to see the problem for themselves and that it isn’t a nebulous problem. It’s very real.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus