Every summer, people pack up their belongings in their car, drive up into the beautiful public lands that the Teton region so prides itself on, and look for a spot to spend the night.
Many may think this is the pretext for an off-the-grid stay that so many visitors desire, but it is the opposite in every aspect. Our public lands aren’t only catering to the masses of tourists, but also to the region’s homeless and displaced.
Few civilized locations are less suited to homelessness than the Teton region. Combining a brutal climate with a lack of infrastructure leads to a tough proposition for those that are displaced and without a roof over their head.
Alex Bontecou, case manager at the Community Resource Center of Teton Valley, summed up the lack of visibility that has prevented awareness of the issue.
“There are a lot of people in the community who think that we don’t have a homelessness problem here, but that’s just because they don’t see a tent community or people sleeping on the street. That’s because it looks different here,” said Bontecou. “If you’re living in your car, it may not be on the street, it may not be as visible, because there are places in the national forest you can go to.”
It is also less visible because the region does not have many resources for affected individuals. Teton Valley does not have a shelter or mission, and neither does Alpine. There is only one mission in the region, that being the Good Samaritan Mission in Jackson.
Idaho Falls is a bit further away but offers a level of resources that is a step up from what the immediate region contains. There are currently three shelters offering some form of emergency housing located in Idaho Falls.
With the region’s growth and exacerbation of its growing pains, CRC executive director Lillian Curtis can already see future demand for a shelter in Teton Valley.
“I personally think that it is going to happen, whether we want it to or not as far as the need for a shelter here,” said Curtis.
A goal of the CRC is to nip the issue in the bud before it turns into displacement or outright homelessness.
“I hope that with the growth of certain programs they can be aimed more at prevention than a band-aid solution,” said Bontecou.
“We don’t want to just be a band-aid, because then it ultimately never really heals,” said Curtis.
The CRC was never designed to be a solution to the homelessness issue in the region, but it is meant to be an organization that those on the brink of displacement can turn to.
“The issue of housing security and the fear of not having your home next month is something that we encounter almost daily with clientele,” said Bontecou.
Through the CRC, individuals can apply for rental assistance, be guided through the hoops of Idaho’s housing preservation program, or look for assistance concerning other expenses such as utilities or food.
“We look at all of these different components and all of these different aspects of life where we could help. Maybe we can’t magically make the rent more affordable. Maybe these programs for rent aren’t enough, but can we help cut down all these other costs? Can we help connect you to these programs?” asked Bontecou.
It is important to remember that the lack of housing security in the region doesn’t affect just one particular demographic. Curtis herself has been particularly affected, as housing scarcity drove her and her family to commit to a place that wasn’t suitable for raising her two-year-old.
“It is people like me,” said Curtis. “People can look at a figure in the community and be like well, they clearly seem to have it all together in terms of their budget, their job, their family, car, and food, and that is just not the case. It’s the younger families, the bread and butter of the town that keep it going.”
The image of a homeless individual is also different in our region.
“Homelessness has a stigma that comes with it. There is a social stigma where people think it is a certain person or group in the population and that is not the case, it is completely unexpected,” said Bontecou.
For those in the region that do fit society’s typical definition of homeless, resources are in high demand, especially during the summer months.
“We’re the only shelter so everybody sends people to us,” said Chuck Fidroeff, executive director of Jackson’s Good Samaritan Mission. “We’re full for women and we’re almost full for men.”
The Good Samaritan Mission in Jackson is what Fidroeff classifies as a high barrier shelter. Individuals that find a bed are required to follow rules including no drugs or alcohol, no violence, and they must find a job within two days.
“We don’t need to have a free place to live, we need a place that can help you get your life back together again so you can go from there to being what society wants you to be, a productive member,” explained Fidroeff. “Once they get a job we’ll help them move forward that way. That’s my favorite thing to do because that is where I came from.”
Only in extreme circumstances does the Good Samaritan open its doors to everyone.
“If it looks like -20 degrees outside we’ll put them in our drop-in center so they at least won’t die and hopefully get them a ticket to someplace warmer so they can move forward.”
When asked what he thought about the idea of a shelter or mission in Teton Valley, Fidroeff stated that it would be welcome.
“When it comes to the homeless, I think duplication of services is wonderful,” said Fidroeff. “All this stuff is going on because somebody opened one up here in 1968. Somebody had the heart. I see the same in Teton Valley. If somebody gets it in their heart to open one up, now would be a good time. It’s always a good time.”