(Gregory Hirst)

CASPER, Wyo. — With recent national headlines depicting Casper as a city being “taken over by homeless,” Casper Mayor Bruce Knell agreed that overall coverage is more sensational than accurate.

“The press has misrepresented what has been said,” Mayor Knell told Oil City News. “I think it’s over-sensationalized to get viewers.”

Earlier this summer, the shuttered Econo Lodge in Casper was condemned after it was found to be overrun by squatters. After a statewide news outlet recently hit upon the story, Fox News and other news outlets followed suit.

This spotlight on Casper’s issues with homelessness has been a topic of intense discussion, not only among the city’s officials but also among its residents.

City of Casper Councilor Lisa Engebretsen delved into the complexities of the issue, indicating that an influx of homeless individuals, some allegedly bussed in from cities like Denver and regions like Fremont County, have strained Casper’s resources.

“We have heard multiple times that we are getting people bussed from Denver,” Engebretsen said in an email.

This assertion has been hard to validate, but the Municipal Court Judge has noted that several individuals have claimed they were transported from Denver, according to Engebretsen.

The City of Denver and Fremont County Sheriff could not be reached for comment.

The economic implications of homelessness for the city are profound. It costs money to clean up homeless encampments and prosecute crimes by homeless individuals. Engebretsen highlighted the lack of a dedicated budget to tackle this problem. As a result, funds will need to be reallocated, impacting other sectors of the city’s operations.

However, it’s not just a numbers game. Public sentiment seems to oscillate between compassion and frustration. Engebretsen lamented that the local citizens are quick to point fingers at the City Council.

“Public opinion is almost a joke. The locals are blaming us on City Council as if we are personally driving all over and loading these people up and bringing them here,” Engebretsen stated.

“I am getting a lot of support from the community but I am also getting a lot of flak with people saying that this will destroy tourism for the community,” Knell said in reference to the national coverage of the problem. “In my family, we sit down and air our grievances. When it is to the extent that they are invading structures and causing property damage, it’s time to talk and find real solutions and get these issues fixed.”

The mayor was particularly pointed in his comments about the recent clean-up efforts under the city’s bridges and how they were portrayed in recent media coverage.

“We cleaned up over 500 pounds of garbage which included feces underneath some of the bridges downtown,” he said, highlighting the F Street bridge, McKinley Street bridge, and interstate bridge as primary locations.

The pound estimate came from the Casper Streets Department, which did the cleanup. Knell said some news coverage exaggerated that to be 500 pounds of feces, but the number is for all the trash and feces cleaned up from homeless camps around Casper, not including damages to the Econo Lodge hotel.

The Econo Lodge, now condemned due to the damages, became a focal point of the discussion. While it suffered extensive damage from homeless squatters, there were other contributing factors, such as a flood that ruined electrical switch boxes and left a foot of standing water in the building.

One of the challenges of quantifying the issue comes from the varied data sources. “According to Fox News, Wyoming has 638 homeless people statewide; if 200 of those are in Casper, that’s a problem,” Knell said.

Yet, numbers from the Homeless Coalition and estimates from Mayor Knell suggest the figure might be different. The mayor believes the annual count, conducted in January, may not provide the most accurate picture.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to do that count in January,” Knell said.

City Manager Carter Napier provided a broader perspective, suggesting that while Casper is facing challenges, other regions might be faring worse. “On a comparative scope, we’re actually kind of lucky,” Napier said.

However, Leticia Drake, clerk of Casper’s municipal court, has noticed a worrying trend: Homeless representation among defendants has risen from the five-year average of 3–4% to around 12% in the last six months.

Drake also touched upon another facet, where some of the homeless population was sent to Casper for mental and behavioral health stabilization only to be left without a clear plan post-release.

The chart below gives some data from Drake on Municipal Court cases. The third chart labeled with possible additional cases is for instances that may be missing an address at the point of ticketing, arrest or input to the court program. 

Some are listed as “unknown address,” which shows that the defendant did not provide an address to the PD at the time of the ticket or arrest, according to Drake. With no address or homeless notation, it is unclear if they truly qualify but it is worth recognizing under a different heading.

Current Year 2023
MonthTotal CasesHomeless %
August 80410012.44%
Historical Data
YearTotal CasesHomeless%
Historical Data with possible additional cases
YearTotal CasesHomeless%

Tyler Daugherty, Visit Casper CEO, thinks that while the headlines might sway some opinions, the city’s long-term brand as a tourist destination remains largely unaffected.

“Long-term and on a large scale, however, I don’t believe that it will negatively impact our brand,” Daugherty said. Addressing the recent media portrayal, he added, “I felt the mayor did a good job of showing compassion in his interview(s), addressing that we are not overrun, we are a welcoming community, and we have systems and services available to combat the issue.”

As Casper grapples with this multifaceted issue, city officials like Mayor Knell emphasize the need for constructive solutions.

“These problems are very real,” Mayor Knell affirmed. “There is no simple pill that is going to fix it.”

He is slated to travel to Washington D.C. in October, aiming to secure federal support. Meanwhile, the city staff are hard at work drafting new ordinances to provide the local police with more tools to manage the crisis, but the final recommendations for those ordinances have not been completed yet.

While the numbers, perspectives and solutions might vary, one thing is evident: Casper is determined to address its homelessness challenge head-on, balancing compassion with practicality.