CHEYENNE, Wyo. — When Dave Wells, a blind and disabled Cheyenne veteran, received a January 120-day notice to vacate his old apartment, he didn’t know where to go.
“I’d figured I’d live my life up there [in my apartment],” he said. “It was a little costly, but I was doing it, paying my own utilities, surviving off of disability check. But today’s economy caught up with me.”
That’s when he called Robin Bocanegra, executive director of the Comea Shelter, for help. Their friendship goes all the way back to 2011 when Wells, an alcoholic at the time, enrolled in one of the shelter’s recovery programs to get sober. Serving as both a shelter and resource center for the city’s homeless, Comea offers transitional living and sobriety programs at its 1504 Stinson Ave. location.
Bocanegra presented Wells with the ideal opportunity — move into a newly renovated ADA-accessible room at the former Stage Coach Motel for only $450 a month. Wells can furnish the room with his own belongings and stay as long as he needs.
“I said I’m interested, and here I am,” Wells said, sitting inside the motel room that now houses his furniture, homemade trinkets and “roommate” Ted the teddy bear.
Wells, who moved in on April 16, is the first occupant of Comea’s Stages program. Named after the motel, the program will provide affordable shelter to unhoused people who use, or have a history of using, alcohol and drugs. The goal is to help people stay clean and sober from their substance abuse, Bocanegra said.
“We plan to promote it as a transitional program,” she said, “but if somebody is there and we feel they need to stay in order to maintain that sobriety or need additional support, we’re not going to set a time limit of when they have to be out.”
Although only three out of the roughly 20 rooms in the motel have been renovated and a lack of funding has the completion date set back to September 2024, Bocanegra and Wells are optimistic that Stages will provide a much-needed service to the community.
Located at 1515 W. Lincolnway, the Stage Coach functioned as a typical motel until 2022, when it was purchased by the city of Cheyenne and Laramie County with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The Comea Shelter, which is located adjacent to the motel, then acquired the property with hopes of creating the city’s first low-barrier transitional housing program.
The shelter wants to renovate all 20 of the motel’s rooms into apartment-like residences. Some rooms are so small, though, that Bocanegra said they might be converted into storage units or a small clinic where local doctors can conduct check-ups on the program’s residents. Comea also plans on opening a Stages Transition Center on the property, which will serve as a designated daytime drop-in area for community members to come and access alcohol and substance abuse recovery resources. The center will open in mid-May, and will be located where the old reception area of the motel used to be.
“We have some folks calling, they still think [Stages] is a motel … but that’s not what it is,” she said. “It’s a program designed for people who have been homeless … who struggle with substance abuse and mental illness. It’s for the ones who are falling through the cracks.”
Road to Renovation
Comea started out with roughly $300,000 in grant money to renovate the place, Bocanegra said. When the project began in July 2022, Comea staff hoped Stages would be completed sometime in 2023. However, improving the heavily deteriorated condition of the motel’s rooms has been a costly and time-consuming process, Bocanegra said. Staff needed to install new fire sprinkler systems, remove leftover trash, repair water-damaged floors and draw up a new site plan, among other things.
“In some of the rooms there isn’t even glass on the windows,” she said. “The door frames are so broken up that we can’t even lock the doors — we have to board the rooms up. It’s way worse than what we had anticipated.”
Comea has spent $600,000 toward infrastructure expenses, with additional funding coming from the Federal Home Loan Grant of Dubois Affordable Housing Program. Now, Bocanegra said, the shelter is out of money for renovations. Staff are in the process of writing a $1 million grant request to the same Dubois program, which should cover the remain remodeling costs. If their request is approved, Comea will receive the funds in spring 2024 and complete Stages in September of that year.
To help cover part of the remodeling costs, Comea created an adopt-a-room program, which allows community members or businesses to pay $25,000 toward renovating a standard room and $30,000 for an ADA-accessible one. The three completed rooms all had local donors, Bocanegra said.
The End Goal
Although the process is taking longer than expected, people are ready to have an initiative like Stages, Bocanegra said. There is already a waitlist for the two other rooms.
“We have so much interest in it, it really isn’t going to be that hard to fill them,” she said.
A transitional housing program is an asset to any community, said Jeff Curtsinger, case manager for Recover Wyoming. An addiction treatment center based in Cheyenne, Recover Wyoming partners with Comea to provide alcohol and substance abuse recovery resources. Center staff will also be available at the Stages Transition Center when it opens.
Curtsinger, who moved to the city in August 2022, used to work at the Yakima Union Gospel Mission in Washington. The organization helped people get clean and off the street, he said, and offered a similar housing program. Such resources are abundant in Washington, Curtsinger said, but in Wyoming, not so much. He’s glad to see Comea spearhead the Stages program.
“I’m glad to see Comea do it, and will help in any way I can,” he said.
Like Curtsinger, Wells believes the program can help vulnerable community members find a place to get back on their feet.
“What [Bocanegra] has in mind for this is over-the-hill cool,” he said. “There are a lot of people who can benefit from this.”
Wells plans to have his cataracts fixed before he starts actively looking for a new apartment. For now, though, he’s grateful to have a place to call home.
“I’m just happy as hell to be here,” he said. “I was so uncertain, I didn’t know what would happen from day to day, but I just kept moving forward, kept thinking positive. I’m grateful that tomorrow is another day.”