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Mayor's claims about homelessness gained national and international attention, but are they true?

CASPER — Drive through downtown Casper on a typical summer afternoon, and more likely than not, you will see nothing remarkable.

You may notice that the traffic is mild and the sidewalks are tidy and mostly empty — save for maybe a few shoppers and businesspeople wandering about. Visit during the evening, and you may have some angst finding street parking, especially if there’s a concert going on. Life downtown is pretty ordinary, in other words.

Which might surprise you if you’ve Googled Casper lately. A rash of recent attention from national (and some international) media, spurred by an Aug. 30 story published by Cowboy State Daily, depicted the city as under siege by a severe homelessness crisis.

Center-stage in most of that coverage is Mayor Bruce Knell, who has spoken candidly about a growing number of problems the city believes are tied to homelessness — including illegal camping, disorderly behavior and vandalism.

To hit home just how bad things are getting, he’s pointed to two rather extraordinary incidents said to involve homeless people in Casper: first, that squatters caused millions of dollars in damage to a local motel, and second, that city staff had to clean up 500 pounds of human feces from downtown.

Those stories have captured headlines in a spate of right-wing news outlets, including Fox News, the Daily Mail, the New York Post and the Epoch Times.

But much of the platforms’ coverage is exaggerated, missing context, or in some cases, flat-out wrong.

Here’s a fact-check of some of the most widely-circulated claims about homelessness in Casper.

Did squatters cause millions of dollars in damage to a local motel?

The property in question is the now-vacant Econo Lodge in North Casper, located near the intersection of I-25 and Poplar Street.

Chuck Hawley, the Econo Lodge’s listing agent, said the building did have squatters but they didn’t rack up seven figures worth of damage. The harm was largely cosmetic and would take no more than $30,000 to $50,000 to address, he said in a text to the Star-Tribune.

Knell — also commenting over text — said he got the multimillion-dollar figure from a local building restoration company. The company “said it would be $4 million just to clean up everything” in the building and between $4 million and $5 million “to make it habitable again,” he wrote.

Hawley said that bid was related to addressing recent flood damage to the property (which was not caused by trespassers), and expressed doubt that the estimates were that high.

In any case, the totality of the damage was enough to prompt the city of Casper to condemn the building.

“We do not enter into a condemnation declaration lightly,” said Carter Napier, Casper’s city manager. “It has to be a clear and present health and safety matter.”

The owners of the Econo Lodge have since taken measures to secure the property, he said.

Did Casper remove 500 pounds of human feces from downtown?

The city recently cleaned up almost 500 pounds of refuse from a homeless camp, Napier said, including an approximately 50-pound bag of feces.

He said the camp was located under a bridge.

The city doesn’t ordinarily log how much garbage it removes from homeless camps, but kept track of those particular statistics to offer City Council a “stark example” of how much work goes into addressing illegal camping and squatting in Casper, Napier said.

He said the city’s probably cleaned up about 10 camps around that size in the past four years.

And human waste, unfortunately, tends to be a part of that — people without proper shelter don’t have access to bathrooms, after all.

Are there 200 homeless people roaming the streets?

No. That figure has been tossed around in city meetings as a rough estimate for Casper’s overall homeless population, including the number of people staying at the Wyoming Rescue Mission, the city’s sole homeless shelter. (On Thursday, the Mission had a total of 118 guests, said Director of Development Cheryl Hackett.)

To say there are 200 homeless people in the whole city is probably lowballing it, though.

While there isn’t one comprehensive definition for who counts as homeless, housing instability doesn’t just include people living on the streets or in shelters, but can also refer to people taking refuge in hotels, cars or couch surfing with friends and relatives, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

In partnership with community organizations, the city of Casper is trying to gather more comprehensive data on its homeless population, but that’s still a work in progress.

Are homeless people flocking to Casper from out of town?

City officials, law enforcement and social service organizations in Casper report that more and more homeless people are coming to the community from other parts of the state, or even other parts of the country. (Those groups have started collecting data that seem to substantiate this theory, though it’s too early to say for sure how big of a trend this is.)

Based on what we do know, the majority of homeless people in Casper probably aren’t out-of-towners.

Hackett said that 60% to 65% of people who stay at the Wyoming Rescue Mission are from Natrona County.

Why might people struggling with housing instability be coming to Casper?

The city is one of Wyoming’s social service hubs. People can receive help here they can’t get elsewhere in the state. Some local leaders are concerned this will put a strain on city resources, if it isn’t already.

The other problem is that there isn’t a robust system to ensure people who come here for support can get back to the communities where they came from (assuming they only planned to stay in Casper temporarily). That might leave them at a greater risk for getting stranded in the city without a support system.

A note on trends in homelessness and crime

Over the last six months, homeless people have made up a growing percentage of Casper Municipal Court’s caseload, according to data shared with the Star-Tribune.

Public intoxication and failure to comply for payment of fines were the most common charges, Clerk of Municipal Court Leticia Drake said in an email to the Star-Tribune.

Trespassing, shoplifting and open container charges were the next most common.

Some are from repeat defendants, Drake noted.

We don’t know what’s driving this trend. We don’t know if cases will stay this high, either — they may start to taper off again when winter approaches. These numbers also represent only a slice of Casper’s homeless population, and shouldn’t be taken as representative of the group overall.

Another, national-level trend worth noting is that chronic homelessness seems to be on the rise.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers someone chronically homeless if they’ve been homeless for at least a year, or at least four times on and off over the last three years, so long as the total amount of time exceeds 12 months.

Chronically homeless people also have at least one disabling condition, which can include mental disorders and addiction.

HUD reported that the number of chronically homeless people in the U.S. increased 16% between 2020 and 2022.

Chronically homeless people often need a more robust safety net than their non-chronic counterparts, which can include permanent supportive housing, according to the federal agency.

Nationally, there isn’t a clear picture of the relationship between homelessness and crime. A lot depends on the type of homelessness in question, the type of crime and the characteristics of the person involved (if they have a long history of homelessness or mental health conditions, for example.)

To offer just one example: a 2014 literature review published in Psychiatric Services, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that homeless adults with severe mental illness were more likely to engage in criminal activity, have encounters with law enforcement (like arrests and convictions) and be victims of crimes compared to housed adults with severe mental illness.

But again, that speaks to just one portion of the homeless population.

What might be the takeaway here? The root causes and effects of homelessness are hazy and nuanced, even with context.

This story was published on September 12, 2023.