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City's homeless: Advocates say problem is both underestimated, underserved

Nov 29, 2012 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Members of community service organizations are requesting that residents lend an extra hand when it comes to serving the area's homeless population.

The City of Riverton formed a "solutions committee" this year to discuss social issues facing the Riverton community. During a recent meeting, committee members agreed that although several services are available to homeless people, the increasing population can drain the available resources.

Homeless population

Although agencies throughout Fremont County provide services -- health centers, clinics, food banks, alcohol crisis centers, substance abuse programs, food distribution programs, employment programs and counselling -- limited resources mean those programs can only help a certain number of people.

The solutions committee members said they traveled recently to several areas of the county in search of homeless people.

From October 2011 to September 2012 they said they encountered 261 homeless people in Fremont County. About 73 percent were women, and 46 percent were American Indian. From Jan. 1 to the end of September, they said 21 percent of homeless individuals found were mentally ill.

Needs

The committee members said they offered shelter, food and a gateway to end any addictions. Dana Neil-Flint, director of the First Stop Help Center, described the encounters as hours of conversation and getting to know the homeless individuals and showing respect.

"This is really crucial in our outreach work," Neil-Flint said. "That's what we're doing, it's listening."

Neil-Flint said she and others met with more than 70 people, including some children, in a span of more than a month.

"Every time we go out, there's always someone new," said Charles Aragon, a American Indian patient advocate for Riverton Memorial Hospital. "A lot of times we don't get to meet the same person, so if somebody comes up (to us) and says that they want help, we need to do it immediately because who knows if we're going to see them again."

Neil-Flint said some resources are limited when the group needs to act fast. Some centers require evaluations that take time to process, for example, or there may not be beds or donated food available right away.

Many times, Neil-Flint and Aragon said they paid out of their own pockets for food, clothing and other items because the federal funds they are given are for bigger expenses like housing payments. Neil-Flint said the petty cash they are given isn't enough and runs out quickly because just one person can use a large amount for medications or other expensive purchases.

Neil-Flint said her program also has limits as to whom it serves. She said the person has to be in recovery or be diagnosed with a mental illness by a therapist, and those requirements make it difficult to help everyone.

"If you're sober, we'll do what we can for you," said Peter Dvorak from the Fremont County Good Samaritan Center.

He said his organization also is restricted in certain ways and has to turn down anyone who is intoxicated.

Aragon said many people drink heavily so they can get a meal at the Fremont County Alcohol Crisis Center. He said people are admitted to detox only if they are intoxicated.

Setting goals

Neil-Flint said she felt that the most important issue with many homeless people was the lack of guidance and goal-oriented brainstorming. She said most members of the county's homeless population deal with sexual abuse experiences, bipolar disorders or depression problems. She said it takes work for everyone to get over these situations, but during the process they need a plan or something to do.

"We have to find out who they are inside," Neil-Flint said.

Her concern was that if these people do improve over time and they aren't given other resources to improve their lives, then they will fall back into the same habits.

Neil-Flint said agencies should help these people set goals. She also said many homeless people have great talents, and there should be programs that help them exercise those interests through hobbies, sports teams or art programs.

Neil-Flint said many of the homeless people she knows don't have plans for what's next in their lives. She said programs are needed to fill in those gaps.

"Who's helping them organize themselves?" Neil-Flint asked. "Help them set goals, help them have a vision?"

Transportation is another issue, she added, explaining that the county's homeless need a way to get to doctor appointments, counseling visits or shelters. Neil-Flint and Aragon said they had to drive people to Ethete and Lander several times to see if there were services available in those locations. Neil-Flint said she's also had to pay for hotel rooms for some because she couldn't find a place for them to stay. She suggested the community needs a center where these people can go to in the middle of the night when necessary.

Call for help

"We need everybody to step in," Neil-Flint said.

She said many people have compassion fatigue. She said the biggest complaint she gets from homeless people are the way they are treated at agencies when they arrive for help.

"They're seeing that people are judging them, and that they hate them, and that they really don't give 2 cents about them," Neil-Flint said. "They have nobody because everybody in their world is sick too."

Neil-Flint advised the people present at the meeting to treat the homeless population well, even though it can be frustrating to see the same people over and over.

"They wear you out, but you got to keep going," she said.

Neil-Flint said these people feel judged not only by agencies but by the community as well. Several food banks and coat drives appear during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but Neil-Flint said she wants to see these services available all year, not only during holidays. She said she hopes the community can help in more ways and become more involved.

"The community really needs to understand that it's so much deeper," Neil-Flint said.

Riverton police chief Mike Broadhead said he would be in charge of finding a place for the homeless to be able to take a shower.

"All I'm thinking in my head is the shower is going to be the hardest part," Broadhead said. "The National Guard can set it up for us."

He said the committee needs to coordinate and find other places where they can set up additional services.

Events upcoming

Neil-Flint said new funds need to be set up to help, and fundraisers would also work. She said a point-in-time count would happen in January. Homeless people would be able to visit several locations in the county to get a meal and receive donations. Neil-Flint said the event also would help organizers determine how many homeless people are in the county and therefore how much funding is necessary.

Aragon described meeting with veterans who expressed horrible stories of death and guilt. He said he was unable to provide them help because resources were scarce. He then contacted the Veterans Affairs clinic in Riverton and they contacted Denver's and Casper's VA clinics. VA officials met with Aragon and told him they would be able to send a mobile unit Tuesday, Dec. 4, for veterans not receiving any kind of help.

Aragon said other programs like the Indian Health Services would also come together on that same day to assist additional homeless people. He said the next step would be to find ways to notify all homeless people of this upcoming service.

The mobile unit will be at Riverton City Park from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4. Officials said they will offer food, coffee, health screenings, flu shots and winter clothes, and they will be able to help people find housing, stop alcohol and illegal drug use, find medical coverage and counseling services and get a new start in life.

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