CASPER, Wyo. — “Hello? Hello?”
Jay Lefebre stooped beneath the underpass where the interstate crosses the North Platte River. Standing on the concrete incline, he peered into the spaces between the bridge’s trestles.
Nobody answered. His greetings were returned only with the rumble of cars passing overhead and the quiet babble of the partially frozen river.
“Hello?” he called again, his breath visible in the January morning cold.
Someone had been here. They had turned the green metal trestles into a pantry. Bottles of jam and jars of peanut butter were stacked next to cans of chili and bags of rice. About 10 feet away, someone had stashed blankets and a sleeping bag beneath the bridge. Two squares of plywood set on rocks appeared to form seats above the mud and slush. A maroon Bible — the kind found in hotel side tables — sat nearby.
But nobody was in the makeshift camp. They had likely already moved somewhere warmer to wait out the 30-degree day.
“Being out in the cold really makes you appreciate the roof over your head and the clothes on your back,” Lefebre said as he climbed back into the car.
Lefebre was one of dozens of volunteers who set out Jan. 26 across Casper to count the community’s homeless. The volunteers searched for people who were unsheltered — sleeping in vehicles, outside or other places not meant for human habitation. When the volunteers found them, they were to ask them a series of questions about their health and living situation:
Do you have a disability? Have you ever been the victim of domestic violence? Are you a veteran? Where do you plan to sleep tonight?
The data will become part of the national point-in-time count, which collects the data from volunteers across the country conducting counts on a single day in January. The numbers are not all-encompassing, but serve as a benchmark to gauge the extent of homelessness in a community.
But finding people experiencing homelessness was not easy for Lefebre and his team.
The three volunteers — all probation and parole agents with the Wyoming Department of Corrections — set out about 8 a.m. to scour central Casper. They started with the Interstate 25 underpasses and then moved to C85 Galles Liquor on East Yellowstone Highway.
The staff there said they knew some of their regulars were experiencing homelessness. They spoke of their customers with warmth and mentioned some by name, like one man who was hurt while working in the oil fields and is homeless while waiting for a disability check. The employees bought some of those customers hats and gloves to keep them warm. The volunteers left a few flyers about available resources on the check-out counter before moving on to the Natrona County Library, a popular place for homeless people to stay warm during the day.
Inside, Lefebre approached two men inside the library and asked if they had a place to stay that night. One man, wearing four jackets layered over each other, said he was staying at the Wyoming Rescue Mission. The other simply did not respond to Lefebre’s question.
Lefebre and the two other team members — Annie Copelin and Lauren Millay — are familiar with many of Casper’s social services through their work with probation and parole. While most of their clients aren’t sleeping on the street, a number have spent at least a few nights at a local shelter. Others are couch surfing or sleeping in vehicles. The agents know how precarious stable housing can be. It can be especially difficult for people with addiction who can’t stay in the local shelters while they’re using drugs or alcohol.
“That’s how you end up sleeping under bridges,” Millay said.
The trio then drove to north Casper and wandered the streets, peering down alleys behind low-rate motels and by-the-week apartments. In Mike Sedar Park, they tramped through snow and ice to peer into the dugouts at the baseball diamonds. People had been found living in the partial shelters even in the dead of winter.
Volunteers with the count need to be on the lookout for a wide variety of living spaces, said Krystal Wallace, a client advocate with the Community Action Partnership of Natrona County, which organizes the count. People live in tents along the river in Morad Park all winter or in their cars in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Some sleep behind dumpsters. Others dig shallow trenches in the ground and cover the space with a tarp, she said.
The partnership coordinates the Casper point-in-time count every year. This year, the volunteers were split into six geographic areas: Evansville, Mills, and the north, west, east and central areas of Casper. Other volunteers were stationed at locations where people experiencing homelessness frequent, like the library or the Department of Workforce Services.
Last year, volunteers across Wyoming counted a total of 873 homeless people living either in shelters, temporary housing or on the streets. According to the counts, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the state has increased each year since 2014.
Many people don’t realize how homelessness is often the result of a series of unfortunate events, like expensive medical treatment or an unexpected bill, said Marilyn Dymond Wagner, the director of operations for the partnership. Instead, they assume a homeless person is lazy or an addict.
“I don’t think people conceptualize that many people live one paycheck away (from homelessness),” she said.
While the common conception of a homeless person is a single male traveling with a backpack, the spectrum of people experiencing homelessness is much more varied, she said. Last year, point-in-time volunteers counted 251 people in families who were homeless and 62 homeless youth who weren’t accompanied by an adult.
But the count is an inexact method for calculating a community’s homeless population. Dymond Wagner said the number is much higher than the numbers in the reports. People who are couch surfing or who live unsheltered in a community where the count isn’t conducted will not appear in the reports.
“There are people we’ll never be able to count,” she said. “We’re just scratching the surface.”
Dymond Wagner and Ivonne Chavez, employment program manager with the partnership, supervised Friday’s point-in-time count from a room at the 12-24 Club. The organization had collected jackets, socks and snacks that volunteers could give out to the people they encounter in their searches.
Three men drifted into the room looking for food and clothes just after noon Friday. They chatted excitedly as they tried on blue jackets, noting the jackets’ windproof outer shell. They gathered packs of Oreos into their bags and chose warm winter socks.
When offered packs of hand warmers, one man declined with a shy smile.
“Oh, that’s OK,” he said. “I don’t really use them and I wouldn’t want to take anything I wouldn’t use. Leave those for others.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com