By Kate Ready
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON —As temperatures drop, Teton County is seeing heightened numbers of unhoused residents being cited for trespassing. In response, officials are essentially exporting the valley’s homeless problem.
In the last two weeks, Jackson police have received 12 calls about people facing homelessness. The calls come in as trespassing or illegal camping as the unhoused seek shelter amid plunging temperatures.
Fairgrounds employees have called for a man sleeping in their restrooms. Men are camping in their cars in the Millward Street parking garage. A 70-year-old man was cited for trespassing and illegal camping Oct. 22 for sleeping in the Miller Park restrooms. Just three days later, he was arrested for continuing to sleep there, along with two other men, a 37-year-old and a 57-year-old.
According to Lt. Russ Ruschill of the Jackson Police Department, his team regularly comes into contact with 15 unhoused people around town.
“Fifteen is high and unique to this year,” Lt. Ruschill said. “We usually have no more than 10, I would guesstimate.”
The current playbook for helping the “chronically” unhoused in Teton County varies, but if they’re deemed to be committing a crime, police will issue a citation or arrest them. If a mental health crisis is occurring, they may take them to the hospital for medical attention or partner with the Community Counseling Center or Salvation Army to find a place for them to go.
But for “frequent fliers” who cycle in and out of jail, Teton County Circuit Court Judge James Radda has begun writing into their release orders that they must take the bus to Salt Lake City.
To leave jail, they must leave Jackson.
“Our mission is their safety,” Ruschill said. “Salt Lake City has more resources down there. The Greyhound runs out of Salt Lake. We have no bus service here other than SLC, and the Salt Lake Express is cheap.”
Homeless advocates see such displacement as inhumane and costly.
Wren Fialka is the founder and executive director of the Spread the Love Commission, a Jackson nonprofit she started in 2014 that now helps people facing homelessness all over the country meet their basic needs.
Spread the Love collects and distributes gloves, socks, sleeping bags, mats, backpacks, toiletries, first aid supplies and more to people in need. Fialka has worked in Miami, Denver and the Wind River Reservation. One frequent distribution location is Salt Lake City.
“Salt Lake City has gotten more and more dangerous every year I’ve been down there,” Fialka said. “People are living by the railroad tracks miles away from running water in a snowstorm because they’ve been pushed that far out of the city. That’s where we’re sending them to.”
Salt Lake City also conducts “sweeps,” encampment raids to clean up the streets. However, Fialka said these sweeps rob the unhoused of their key possessions and their dignity.
“They’ll get their IDs taken, their money, their shoes, really all of their essential belongings,” she said. “Sweeps and shipping people to different places doesn’t work. If we’re not treating them like humans, it’s not a solution.”
Carl Moore, co-founder of Salt Lake City organization OUR’s — Our Unsheltered Relatives — said if Jackson and other towns like Las Vegas are sending their homeless to Salt Lake City, those places should be contributing funds to Salt Lake City’s resource centers.
Moore also is an Indigenous rights activist who said Jackson should rethink how they conceptualize “residency.”
“Jackson is made up of all alien residents unless they’re Lakota or Sioux,” Moore said. “Can’t be picking and choosing who they allow to be strangers.”
Fialka said many judges across U.S. cities are writing into their release orders that the homeless must leave their city, but the receiving cities either send them back or send them elsewhere.
According to Moore, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is telling the homeless they need to go anywhere but there.
What’s different about Teton County’s homelessness crisis compared to other U.S. cities, Fialka said, is that it’s “tucked in.”
The stigma for the unhoused, in a society that treats them like a pest, keeps them from coming forward or asking for help. Especially for those with kids who want to protect them from that stigma.
“It’s also people that can have a roof over their heads but maybe there’s black mold, no running water or 12 people in a single-family home with one bedroom,” Fialka said. “There was a mother-daughter who were living in a rundown cabin in Pinedale all winter with no heat.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, on a single night in 2021 more than 326,000 people were experiencing “sheltered homelessness” in the United States.
Six in 10 were individuals. Four in 10 were people in families with children.
The tally is taken annually in January, one of the coldest months of the year, which may not provide an accurate snapshot.
In an Oct. 26 statement, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness put the figure at “well over a million per year.”
The first cause, according to the council and Fialka, is the housing affordability crisis.
“In no U.S. state can someone work full-time for minimum wage and still afford rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment,” the council’s statement said. “For every 100 extremely low-income renters, only 36 affordable units are available.”
Fialka also cited unaffordable medical expenses.
“The support system a lot of us may take for granted is a major reason people end up homeless,” Fialka said. “They may have a family that’s causing them harm, or have no family, or a family without any resources. Then the minute something big happens — violence, death, a medical event — there is zero net. One medical catastrophe can take an entire family out.”
Fialka told a “very typical” story of a 68-year-old man who lost his wife two years ago. Even before she died, they were living on the poverty line.
“With the funeral expenses and medical bills, he was homeless in less than a month,” Fialka said. “In order to stay up through the night, he became addicted to street drugs.”
Many facing homelessness will take “cheap stimulants,” Fialka said, so they can stay awake to avoid being assaulted or robbed. Then their mental health plummets.
Fialka also has seen a growing number of women facing homelessness in every city she visits. Reasons range from COVID-induced evictions to domestic violence.
“It used to be predominantly male,” Fialka said. “We’ve been doing this for eight years, and there’s now six times the amount of women there used to be. The women just aren’t as visible because they’re more prone to violence.”
Mark Houser, a case manager for Mountain House, an outpatient clinic, said that if he had a magic wand, he would create more transitional housing in Teton County. The Good Samaritan Mission has a limited number of beds, he pointed out, and previously available resources have dried up in the name of commerce.
“In the recent past, local motels offered reasonably affordable weekly and monthly rates through the winter,” Houser said in an email. “In 2017, we were aware of nine motels with this option. In 2020, this number dropped to five. This winter, a very few motels still offer weekly and monthly options, but the rates have also risen, making this beyond the reach of many individuals.”
Houser said another life-changing resource for people facing homelessness besides a roof is internet access.
“Many rentals are located through Facebook housing sites,” Houser wrote. “Affordable rental units are sometimes available through organizations like the Teton County Housing Authority and the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust. Applying online for this housing, and constantly checking Facebook sites, are difficult tasks for many who are homeless.”
The cycle of homelessness that takes people through jails, courts and hospitals and out onto the streets again is not only ineffective, it’s costly.
“Eighty percent of our problems are caused by 20% of the people,” Ruschill said. “Eighty percent of our calls for service have involved these 15 people this summer who have been illegally camping, stealing things and drunk in public.”
Exactly how much homelessness actually costs taxpayers can be hard to quantify, as there are so many agencies involved — hospitals, jails, police, detox centers, mental-health clinics, shelters, service providers — and they all keep separate records, separate sets of data for separate purposes, and all run on separate types of software.
For example, Ruschill said the police department doesn’t keep tabs on how much is spent on bus tickets for the homeless every year.
“That money comes from many different sources including individuals, nonprofits, donations, etc.,” he said.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness said in its Oct. 26 statement that “Criminalizing homelessness is expensive. It can cost three times more to enforce anti-homeless laws than to find housing for people who don’t have it.”
In 2015, the Interagency Council on Homelessness in Salt Lake City found that folks who fill up shelters night after night and spend a lot of time in emergency rooms and jails cost between $30,000 and $50,000 a person each year.
“By embracing Housing First — instead of locking people up for struggling to survive — one city saved $2.4 million and housed 1,000 people in a single year,” the Interagency Council on Homelessness said in its October statement.
New York University psychologist Sam Tsemberis pioneered the Housing First model in 1992 to give chronically homeless people a permanent place to live, without making them first become sober or enroll in any programs.
President George W. Bush embraced Housing First, spurring a 30% decline in chronic homelessness from 2005 to 2007.
A “housing first” approach appears to be working to end homelessness in Finland, where the numbers have dropped steadily since 2007, according to the World Economic Forum.
Looking ahead, Santa Clara County, which adopted Housing First in 2010, hopes to develop an early warning system for those who are likely to become a “frequent flier” of clinics and jails, and work to house them.
However, in a place like Teton County, where housing for the middle class is already strained and it takes two minimum-wage jobs just to pay for a bedroom, tax credits for construction and federal vouchers for rent don’t come close to the actual costs.
Fialka said more than housing is needed for reassimilation: It also requires financial support, mental health care and the daily work of relearning how to live inside and trust people again.
“You can either treat people as the problem or you can recognize they are the victims of the problem, which is a broken city and our own apathy,” Fialka said.
Still, Fialka remains optimistic.
“Bigger cities don’t put this on law enforcement,” she said. “They have groups of people that are mental health care professionals that are specially trained.”
Chief of Police Michelle Weber is hiring a social worker. Lt. Ruschill said a conditional offer has been made to a candidate and the department is conducting a background check.
Fialka continues to focus on sharing the stories of the people facing homelessness to “rehumanize” them.
She’s seen success in other cities building tiny homes, stackable and pod housing. For philanthropic investors or foundations who stake the construction funds, the county may kick back a return if they’ve been saved money.
This year at the annual Old Bill’s fundraiser, the Spread the Love Commission raised $25,000. Despite the decrease — Fialka received $47,000 in 2021 — she hopes that hearts in Jackson are warming.
“I think people are opening up about it here,” Fialka said. “I saw a lot of people who were opening up while experiencing their own hardships, and that’s beautiful. It gives me a lot of hope.”