Cheyenne’s local government has been putting a lot of work behind its Fight the Blight campaign to address a number of abandoned houses and run-down buildings. But efforts to clean those places up have indicated another problem—a lack of affordable housing.
Soon after Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr took office in 2017, she formed the Fight the Blight committee.
Orr said there are several abandoned properties in the community that have been taken over by all kinds of things, “by squatters, and drug dealers, and other criminal activity, raccoons, skunks… Nobody wants an abandoned property next to theirs, or next to their grandmother’s, or their mother’s.”
Orr asked the committee to come up with a list of areas in town that need to be addressed. At the top of the list? A trailer park in south Cheyenne.
“This particular trailer park has not been really held accountable for meeting codes,” said Orr.
The city was concerned with four trailers in the park after an inspection revealed no connection to water, sewer, gas or electric services.
The trailers weren’t always occupied, though. They used to be boarded up. Mayor Orr said last year when the park came under new management, landlord Robert Wink decided to put them to use.
“He knew of some people that were in need of homes, and he’s has a very good heart and thought that perhaps unboarding these structures and allowing individuals and families to move into these units was somehow better than their current situation,” said Orr.
Landlord Robert Wink declined multiple requests from Wyoming Public Radio for an interview.
Mayor Orr said because the trailers were not fit for human beings, the city posted notices of code violations on the four trailers. Residents would need to bring their homes up to code, or they would have to find somewhere else to live.
But the problem wouldn’t be solved if tenants simply left the park.
“I think that is absolutely the root of all of this, is a lack of affordable housing here,” said Lori Kempter.
She’s executive director of Family Promise, the sole family-only shelter in Cheyenne.
According to the Wyoming Business Council, there’s a housing shortage in every county in the state. To meet housing demands, Cheyenne—a city of about 64,000 people—would need 12,000 more units.
Kempter said people underestimate how many experience homelessness in the area. That’s because it looks different in Wyoming. Often times it’s people crashing with family or in motels and their cars.
“We serve usually between 15 and 20 families a year with emergency shelter and the majority of the last 12 months we have operated with a waiting list of 15 families at a time,” said Kempter.
The same goes for the other homeless shelter in Cheyenne, COMEA. Executive director at COMEA, Robin Bocanegra, said it is almost always operating at full capacity.
“We always end up with this pocket of people that because of the lack of services there’s just nowhere for them to go,” said Bocanegra.
She added those limited services would help people become more self-sufficient.
“And it’s really hard for us then to find, or to make room, for new people that are experiencing homelessness, because we are full of the folks that we have nowhere to place them,” said Bocanegra.
COMEA and Family Promise each receive about $10,000 a year from the city, and some of that money is set to run out in 2019. Bocanegra said there could be more beds and services provided if they had more funding.
“$10,000 is nothing. When I look at how many people we’re taking off the streets and trying to help them, that’s a community issue,” said Bocanegra.
Both shelters said they would like to see the city take a greater interest in combating homelessness. Mayor Marian Orr sees things differently.
“I don’t believe that it’s up to city government to solve it,” said Orr. “Because it’s a much larger social issue and we simply don’t have that bandwidth and that capability within city government.”
Lori Kempter with Family Promise said the problem is bigger than the local government. She says it’s Wyoming’s weak landlord-tenant laws that cause people to live in the conditions seen at the trailer park in south Cheyenne.
“They’re not choosing to live in conditions that are not meant for human habitation and that don’t have the same basic necessities that you and I have,” said Kempter. “They’re doing that because they have nowhere else to go. So for a landlord to be able to legally rent places out to people that don’t have all of those necessities, that’s a really bad law.”
It’s not clear what will happen to the trailer park in south Cheyenne. Lori Kempter said Family Promise will be stopping by this weekend to hand out flyers with information on community resources. She said if residents do have to vacate in the future, she hopes there’s room at the shelter.