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Wyoming: economic migrants and homelessness

Map of USA with Wyoming highlighted

Map of USA with Wyoming highlighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wyoming is notable for how well it has weathered the recession. It has as strong economy and a low unemployment rate, both of which are attractive to those who have suffered in the current economy. This means an influx of new residents seeking jobs, far more of them than there are homes available for.

Jack Healy of The New York Times reports:

There is a surprising downside to Wyoming’s economic resilience and its 5.1 percent unemployment rate: a sharp rise in homelessness.

As another winter settles in, many people who moved here fleeing foreclosures and chasing jobs in the oil, gas and coal industries now find themselves without a place to live. Apartments are scarce and expensive, and the economy, while strong, is not growing at the swift pace of drilling towns in western North Dakota, where cashiers can earn $20 an hour and fast-food workers can be paid thousand-dollar signing bonuses.

As homeless rates held steady nationwide last year, federal data show that Wyoming’s homeless population soared by 67 percent, to 1,813 people from 1,083 in 2011. Advocates attribute the surge in part to a more aggressive attempt to count the state’s homeless.

That is an amazing spike, sixty-seven percent in one year! While more accurate counts of the homeless can surely account for a portion of that rise, there must be other factors involved. This is where a sort of “gold rush” mentality comes into the equation, people are flocking there for the jobs.

As in any other place in the country, many homeless people in Wyoming have lived on the streets for years or suffer from mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions. But social service workers say they have seen a growing number of economic migrants from Florida and Michigan, Wisconsin and California, with nowhere to settle.

“They’d pack up their pit bulls, their children and they’d move to Wyoming with nothing, just the clothes on their backs,” said Lily Patton, a housing counselor with Interfaith of Natrona County, a nonprofit group. “They keep saying, ‘I’ve never been in this situation before.’ ”

Economic fallout from the past few years has forced many families across the nation into homelessness, and as times have gotten harder many have been forced to seek better opportunities elsewhere. This is exactly what we are seeing in Wyoming, and the available housing stock is not up to the challenge of the new population. As noted above, a good economy does not necessarily denote a growing economy.

As I noted in my last post, many elements of the homeless picture are constant – the need for substance abuse and mental health care options for instance – but there are others that are specific to any given community. As 2013 progresses we need to pay attention to both.

Every state can benefit both socially and fiscally from enacting rehabilitative and skill-development programs, and these are vital things to fight for, but vigilance and engagement are required on the local level in order to deal with the specific dynamics of their communities.

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