CHEYENNE – Robert Larsen spent three years crisscrossing the country looking for work. He cleaned oil from Florida beaches after the BP oil spill. He found work in the booming oil fields of North Dakota until a disagreement with his boss cost him his job. He chased leads in Colorado , New Jersey, Nevada and Utah.
When he read there were jobs in Wyoming, he strapped his helmet to his backpack, cobbled together the little money he had left, and he and his fiancée hitched a ride to the Cowboy State.
In early March, Larsen sat at a picnic table in a South Cheyenne park on a cold but sunny day. Lured by the promise of work, he had not been in Wyoming a week but was already acquainted with the wind. Since arriving in Wyoming, he has lived at the COMEA House, a Cheyenne homeless shelter.
“I want my life back,” said Larsen, who spent 22 years as a welder in Alaska before he got sick and lost his job. “This is not me. I’m a guy who wakes up and goes to work.”
Homelessness in Wyoming is rising, an increase fueled largely by the state’s strong job market. Growth in the oil and gas industry has pushed Wyoming’s employment rate to among the best in the country.
But many communities struggle to house the influx of job seekers, and Wyoming’s low-income workers have seen their wages stagnate even as housing prices skyrocket.
“There are going to be more people,” Larsen predicted. “Anyone who has got any sort of computer skills at all, doing what I was doing and checking ahead, seeing what [jobs] you got.”
He paused. That morning, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Web page listed 50 pages of jobs, Larsen said.
This prompted him to strike a defiant note: “I’m going to make my stand here.”
The state’s homeless population rose 75 percent from 2011 to 2012 — from 1,038 to 1,813 people, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is up 213 percent since 2010, when the state economy began to recover from the recession.
Part of the increase is attributable to improved counting, advocates said. Homeless counts were previously confined to larger communities such as Cheyenne and Casper. Today such counts are better coordinated and statewide.
But improved counting doesn’t explain the increase entirely. Homeless shelters and social service agencies report that they are busier than in the past. And homelessness may be more widespread than the statistics suggest. People doubled up in a motel room or couch-surfing with friends and family don’t count under the federal definition of homeless, advocates said.
“I think there is an awful lot more homelessness in Wyoming than people think,” said Robin Zimmer, executive director of the COMEA House. The stereotype of the transient with a backpack no longer applies, she said.
“It’s people like you and me with a major medical problem, a lost job or a broken marriage,” she said.
Fundamentally, the jump in homelessness is a reflection of the state’s age-old boom-and-bust economy, industry experts said. While Wyoming isn’t in an economic boom like, say, nearby North Dakota, the state’s oil and gas sector has added 4,000 jobs since the start of 2010, according to the state Department of Workforce Services. The state added 20,000 jobs total in that time.
About 9,000 people moved here last year, making Wyoming’s 1.6 percent growth rate the fourth highest in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That has contributed to the rise in homelessness. Many who come find work but spend all their money moving and can’t afford a security deposit for an apartment, said Dora Holbert, housing and community development supervisor for HUD’s Rock Springs office.
Others don’t find work at all.
“We constantly see people in the housing office who came here because they heard there is work,” Holbert said.
A job, but no home.
Cheryl Gallegos is a cook at the Sandbar in Casper.
Last August, her mother had open-heart surgery and Gallegos moved to Cheyenne for four months to care for her. Then her husband, an alcoholic, lost his job at the Sandbar; she fell behind on rent and lost the Mills home she’d lived in for 14 years.
Today, she and her 26-year-old daughter, Jennifer, live in one of the “big” rooms at the Yellowstone Motel. The room consists of a small kitchen and a bedroom. Some mornings the hot water in the shower works. Others it does not. Monthly rent is $1,100.
“I’ve never been homeless,” Gallegos said. “Living in a motel, I’m still embarrassed.”
On her days off, Gallegos goes looking for an apartment. She has yet to find one.
At the end of 2012, Natrona County’s rental vacancy rate was 1.6 percent, with 91 open units out of 5,580, according to the Wyoming Community Development Authority. Statewide, the rental vacancy rate was 4.7 percent, up from a post-recession low of 3.7 percent during the first half of 2012.
Low-income housing is even harder to find. The Casper Housing Authority has a waiting list of more than 600 people, a sum greater than the almost 600 rental units and Section 8 housing vouchers the authority has to offer. The state has 37 affordable units available per 100 extremely low-income families, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The national average is 58 affordable units per 100.
Patrick Manning, principal economist at the Department of Workforce Services office of Research and Planning, said the lack of housing is a function of the state’s boom-bust economy. The state’s housing supply remains relatively stable, while demand rises and falls, he said.
“Uncertainty affects everything. Why would you put up a huge investment in housing if you don’t know what is going to happen next year?” Manning asked. “And if you do get a big spike (in demand), who’s going to get driven out? Probably the people at the lowest level of the wage scale.”
Homelessness has a social cost. Homeless people are more likely to go to the emergency room and typically stay longer. The New England Journal of Medicine found that homeless people spend an average of four more days in the hospital than a person with housing, costing an average of $2,414 more. The public pays that in higher health insurance rates.
Police calls relating to homelessness are expensive, jail beds even more so. The annual cost of a bed in a state or federal prison is $20,000, according to the homelessness alliance. Emergency shelters are also expensive. The annual cost of a shelter bed is $8,067.
“We are paying for it,” said Holbert, the Rock Springs HUD supervisor.
Homeless advocates in Natrona County are developing a business plan to build permanent housing for the county’s chronically homeless, said Brenda Eickhoff-Johnson, executive director of Community Action of Natrona County. Such housing is cost-effective and produces better outcomes, she said.
Salt Lake City’s Housing First project, for example, found that a homeless person costs the city $19,000 in annual medical costs, police calls and use of social services, Eickhoff-Johnson said. With permanent housing, that same person costs $7,000 a year. Salt Lake built 17 units in 2005 as part of a pilot program. It added 100 units in 2008 and another 84 in 2009.
“I really don’t think we can afford not to do it anymore,” Eickhoff-Johnson said.
Jack Bundy is an alcoholic. He moved to Wyoming from North Dakota last fall hoping to find work and to sober up. He found a job, but went on a drinking binge soon after and ended up in rehab.
Bundy has lived at the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission since December and has been sober for 90 days. He is a dish washer at the Golden Corral earning $1,200 to $1,300 a month, depending on his hours. Because he lives at the shelter, he has managed to put some money away.
But like many of Wyoming’s low-wage earners, Bundy can’t find an apartment he can afford. The shortage of housing means rental prices have soared.
Wyoming’s average rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose 15 percent since 2007, from $578 to $666 in 2012, according to the Wyoming Community Development Authority. Average home rentals rose 12 percent, from $853 to $958, while mobile home rentals rose 18 percent, from $554 to $651.
Wages have not kept pace. Construction, public administration, retail and professional and business service wages all failed to match price increases in household goods between 2009 and 2011, according to an August analysis by the Department of Workforce Services.
Service industry wages were already among the lowest in the state. The base service industry salary was $6,810 in 2009 when accounting for inflation. In 2011, it was $6,815.
Bundy explained the dynamic in more practical terms: “People who work at restaurants, the people who work at convenient stores, the people who work at bowling alleys, a lot of these guys and gals are from here and are having a hard time staying here. I’m finding that a lot of people are leaving because there is such a shortage [of housing].”
Bundy doesn’t want to leave. He likes the mountains here and the people. He wants to fish when the weather warms. And he’s sober now.
“Thank God there is a place like here to help you get back up on your feet,” he said, looking around the cafeteria at the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I tell you what. I don’t know if I had another shot at it.”