Your Source For Local and Regional News



Featured News Regional News Wyoming

Death puts focus on unsheltered persons in Rock Springs

(Rock Springs, Wyoming. File Photo)

By Trina Dennis Brittain
Rocket Miner
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

ROCK SPRINGS — The cause of a local man’s death remains unknown.

According to the Rock Springs Police Department, the body of a man was found under the Hancock Bridge on the morning of Thursday, April 18.

This discovery has caused a stir on social media. Locals have alluded in comments that the man was facing housing insecurities.

Elizabeth Coontz, public information officer for the RSPD, said the department cannot confirm whether the man was unhoused.

‘It requires a federal solution’ 

Rock Springs Mayor Max Mickelson chimed in on insecurely housed individuals in Sweetwater County, expressing that the city does not, on any level, have the resources to provide a shelter.

“If we had a ton of money and could turn the First Security Bank building into a housing facility, it would open on a Monday and by Tuesday, there would be a waiting list,” said Mickelson. “This is something that would require a federal solution.”

He noted that there are other countries who have tackled housing insecurity issues and “have done it successfully.”

“It is significantly cheaper to provide housing and medical care to people who are insecurely housed than to deal with the issues that created the problem to begin with.”

He pointed out that some people choose that lifestyle.

“We do not have the right to conform them to our social norms,” he said, mentioning that currently, there are several lawsuits that are happening across America over people pitching their tents in public areas.

“I can get my tent and pitch it in front of city hall,” he explained. “It is 100% legal. No one can do anything about it; it is a constitutionally protected right.”

He also noted that no one can relieve themselves outside, but people can sleep on public property.

“There are communities that have enacted laws to restrict organizations like soup kitchens, which I think is terrible,” he expressed. “Those have been overturned eventually because it is an expression of religion so instead of Loaves and Fishes serving people food every other Tuesday, they can serve ten times a day if they can.

“That would make me very happy.”

“The nature of homelessness has changed and our ability to address it is limited, as it has always been,” Mickelson shared. “Some people have called me to tell me that some folks will no longer get assistance from the rental assistance program and that they are going to be homeless.”

To stand up against this issue, the individuals told city officials that they are going to “find the mayor’s house and camp in his front yard.”

While people have a constitutional right to camp in front of city hall, people cannot legally do the same in front of someone’s house since it’s private property.

Mickelson and RSPD Chief Bill Erspamer discussed options such as hostile architecture.

“But that’s not very compassionate,” he said. “In big cities, there are benches designed to prevent others from laying on them.”

Residents have asked Mickelson about the Days Inn, an empty hotel on Elk Street, north of Rock Springs. According to Mickelson, it might cost the city $5 million to buy it. Since it’s in bad shape, it will cost $20 million for it to be livable. Top it off with $1,000,000 a year in maintenance and $8 million a year in staffing, and the dream to rescue those in need begins to fade away; that kind of funding simply doesn’t exist.

“Who will provide the medical and mental health care?” he asked. “If it was feasible, it would be done.”

He added, “If it were a workable thing, we wouldn’t have these issues.”

If somebody comes from a stable background, Mickelson said, they’re not going to be faced with those hardships.

He gave an example of a documentary he watched regarding a 12-year-old boy from an LGBTQ community in California. Mickelson learned that the homelessness rate is very high among the LGBTQ youth.

“This kid’s parents kicked him out because he was gay,” he explained. “Most of those kids have turned to sex work to survive.”

The minor child in the documentary has a 6th grade education.

“While some say it will be fine if you put him in an apartment, the kid, on the other hand, doesn’t think this is normal. It will feel awful to him because it feels different,” Mickelson said. “You have to be able to provide all these other services to help that person get to a place where hopefully they can decide they like that culturally normative way of living.

Mickelson noted that local law enforcers have discreetly helped those in need.

“Our police officers are routinely paying out of pocket to give people food, hotel rooms and to get them gas. They are police officers for the same reason that people are firemen, nurses and doctors; they’re compassionate,” he said. “They quietly help people all the time.”


‘We wish we could help everyone’

April Thompson, Housing and Community Resources Supervisor, provided data from the Institute for Community Alliances website.

A Point in Time report provides a snapshot of the number and characteristics of sheltered and unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness in Wyoming. 

According to the 2023 PIT, there were 532 sheltered persons in Wyoming. 

Sheltered homeless individuals are those who don’t own or rent their own home, but they survive by ‘couch-surfing,’ or living in motels or making temporary living arrangements with friends. In 2023, sheltered individuals had decreased by 19%.

In 2023, there were 498 unsheltered individuals, meaning these individuals must battle the elements because they have nowhere to go; however, the number of unsheltered individuals decreased by 9% last year.

“The reason we don’t have a large homeless population is the weather is not conducive to it,” said Thompson. “Also, Wyoming is good for taking care of their own.”

To be chronically homeless, according to Thompson, means individuals have been housed, but they end up unhoused repeatedly.

“For one reason or another, they are unable to maintain that housing. They may have issues with confined spaces or mental health issues; some of those folks just need to reside in a group home or transitional home. Sometimes, they can’t navigate the world correctly without help or the assistance from a housing coordinator.”

Thompson revealed that the housing department currently has a waiting list.

“The problem is that people want to be on a waiting list, but they don’t apply,” she shared. “The waiting list is based on time and date of application. If you don’t apply, we can’t help you, especially if you wait until you’re evicted.”

She added, “We have a certain number of units and a certain number of vouchers and if I have no notices that no one’s moving out, I don’t have a place to put them. I’m only allotted a certain number of vouchers for the Section 8 program and a certain amount of funding for the Section 8 program.

“It’s a constant waiting game,” Thompson said. 

She said her job can be difficult.

“My wish is that someone could walk in off the street, and I could say ‘I’ve got a voucher. Let’s find your apartment,’ but unfortunately, the funding and the regulations don’t allow for that. If they don’t apply, or wait until they’re homeless, it ties my hands as to when I can help them.”

She revealed that the department is looking into a new program that will make it easier to apply for housing. People will be able to apply online and it will be offered in various languages if English is not their first language.

She noted that applicants are required to have a birth certificate and Social Security Card.

“Sometimes, people don’t have that, especially those who are experiencing homelessness. They’ve lost those documents,” she explained. “There are programs that they can use to get copies of those sent to them.”

Thompson said that one-bedroom units are what they lack the most, and more people wait for those than two or three-bedroom units.

One bedroom is typically taken by somebody who is elderly or disabled, Thompson said. Their income is not going to change. Their circumstances are not going to get better.

They move in, stay until they go to an assisted living facility, or they pass away.

“Our wish is that we could help everyone that walks in the door immediately. Unfortunately, it does not work that way,” said Thompson.

She said that when she retires, she wants to create emergency housing for Rock Springs. If the community had emergency housing, she said, it would help those who are about to become homeless.

“We don’t know why this man died at that location or the cause of death, but it is so sad,” she said. “We don’t know what we could have done to help him. We do know that an average person is one paycheck away from being homeless.”

While communities across the nation still struggle to find solutions, Thompson believes the answer is “helping the individuals or families to obtain stable, permanent housing.”

“Shelters can serve a purpose; it’s a temporary fix, but that is not a solution to our problem,” she said. “Our problem is affordable housing for all.”

She pointed out that shelters are the best, safe place for the huge homeless population in bigger cities.

“There are hundreds of them; there’s no way to help them obtain housing,” she said. “In Rock Springs, Wyoming, if neighbors continue to help neighbors by helping them obtain services, training and housing, we won’t have this issue.”


Let us know what you think!