THE BUZZ II: Real Talk

By on January 26, 2016

‘22 in 21’ ushers serious valley issues to the forefront.

Gillian Chapman, Teton County School District Superintendent, talks child homelessness during last week’s 22 in 21 conference. (Photo: 22 in 21)

Gillian Chapman, Teton County School District Superintendent, talks child homelessness during last week’s 22 in 21 conference. (Photo: 22 in 21)

Jackson, WY – Is child homelessness a battle being waged in Teton County? The fifth annual “22 in 21” conference illuminated that at least 28 valley students qualify for government financial aid through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act. In order to legally qualify as a homeless student in the state of Wyoming, a student either lacks sufficient night-time housing, lives in a shelter, lives in a public place not designated for sleeping (like a car), is unaccompanied or abandoned, or is awaiting foster care placement. It was just one of many issues brought to the forefront as valley leaders engaged in candid discussion last Thursday at Spring Creek Ranch.

Jonathan Schechter, executive director of Charture Institute, which hosted the conference, took a moment to light candles for change, encapsulating the meeting’s mantra –a Chinese Proverb, “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”

Schechter steered clear of flowery topics during a conference meant to spark important community dialogue so that child homelessness, the local economy, housing and transportation and Elk Refuge feedings could take center stage.

Teton County School District Superintendent Gillian Chapman presented tales of poverty that caught many officials by surprise, including Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner.

“It’s not right,” Flitner lamented. “We spend too much time on things like where to put the dog park or how to form the bike paths, and kids are going hungry or wondering where they’re going to sleep.”

Chapman pointed out that there might be more children suffering in silence as well. “It’s humiliating to ask for help,” she said, emphasizing the struggle families face to juggle rent, transportation, food, and medical expenses in a resort town like Jackson. “Twenty-four percent of our students are on free or reduced breakfast and lunch.”

In order to qualify for free breakfast and lunch, a household must earn less than 130 percent above the poverty line (the poverty line is about $24,000 in the U.S.). That’s $31,500 a year for a family of four – in a town where the price of a home is 261 percent above the national average.

In an interview with The Planet, Chapman explained how students with housing and food insecurities often do not handle the stress of adult problems well. Flailing from the stress of wondering where their next meal is coming from, or how long the roof over their heads will last, students often act out or perform poorly in school, Chapman said.

On a hopeful note, Chapman reported that just days after 22 in 21, community members were already offering ideas to help struggling young people. “I think it’s a broad community conversation,” she said.

Indeed, the Teton County School District cannot solely shoulder the burden of hungry kids in the community. Chapman acknowledges that it will take partnerships with myriad local nonprofits to effect change. The Salvation Army, Hole Food Rescue, and the Jackson Cupboard are all invested in this issue as well, she explained; and through community collaboration, Chapman believes food insecurity for children in Teton County can be addressed.

In a town where 43 percent of the homes in Teton County sit vacant, homelessness does not seem like it should be a problem. But as real estate prices continue to soar, the majority of middle class families cannot afford the initial down payment on a home. Flitner was eager to share a new solution in which the county would subsidize initial down payments on homes in exchange for deed restrictions. These deed restrictions would allow the county to regulate the resale price of the home, and require the homeowner to be employed in Teton County. This would cut down on second homeowner properties and vacation home real estate that artificially inflates the price of houses in Jackson.

Over the hill but not far away

It’s not necessarily insufficient housing or affordable meals for students that Driggs residents fear.

“The biggest challenge to all of the communities in Teton Valley is our proximity to Jackson Hole,” said Driggs Mayor Hyrum Johnson. “Yes, Jackson is a pain in our rear.”

The draw of the Jackson dream, Johnson added, uproots great minds and great talents and pulls them toward profits and success on the other side of Teton Pass. This leaves places like Victor and Driggs to foot the bill for transportation and housing without proportional tax revenue or business investment to support it.

Victor Mayor Jeff Potter, along with nearly 75 percent of the households in his community, travels the pass to Jackson regularly for work. Rather than simply attempting to capture and keep local talent in Teton Valley, Potter said he wants to see a joint effort between Jackson and Victor that will support more frequent commuter buses between the two valleys. With approximately 1,250 commuters navigating the pass each day, more readily available mass transit would help reduce traffic, improve safety, and cut down on carbon emissions, Potter surmised.

Elk evolution

As manager of the Elk Refuge, Steve Kalin said he wants to bring refuge policy into the 21st century. To him, this means addressing the potentially devastating effects of winter elk feeding. Legislators never specifically intended the refuge to be a feeding ground when it was created, Kalin said. According to him, there are serious inherent risks in continuing the practice. Namely, he said, “The risk of concentrating animals – creating conditions that open the door to devastating disease outbreaks – can threaten the very elk which the feeding program is designed to benefit.”

Research done on the refuge indicates that this is not an abstract possibility that could occur in the future. It is taking place right now. Brucellosis (a version of mad cow disease for elk) exists in approximately 35 percent of the elk on the refuge, but occurs less than a third as often in natural-grazing elk herds that are not artificially fed.

Health vs. wealth?

As 22 in 21 ushered these notions into the spotlight, Schechter opened the roundtable Q&A by offering an important reminder. These problems, at their root, he explained, could be condensed down to the tension that transpires when short-term economic benefit is pitted against the long-term sustainability and health of the valley. PJH

About Natosha Hoduski

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