It’s time for Casper to aid Poverty Resistance
Mary Ann Budenske is a long-time warrior in the never-ending war on poverty. She’s definitely one of a kind, because most people confronted with the barriers she’s met would have quit long ago. Lately, she’s kept her anti-poverty program open despite roadblocks put up by city government.
Three years after becoming eligible for her Social Security benefits, Budenske is now a volunteer at Poverty Resistance, the thrift shop she’s been running in downtown Casper since 1987. At times, the annual $50,000 budget it takes to operate the store and a food pantry hasn’t been enough, and she’s had to donate her own money — $14,000 in 2011 — to keep the doors open.
Last month, after being cited by the Casper Fire Department for six violations of the city’s safety codes, she appeared in Municipal Court and pleaded not guilty. The department then dispatched a public information officer to the store to find out what Budenske planned to do.
“I said I was gonna lock the goddamn door and leave,” she recalled. “And while we’re chit-chatting, he says he’s noticed two more violations.”
Budenske put a “Closed Forever” sign in the window, but forever didn’t last too long. Last week Budenske was back in the store, and shoppers were surveying the shelves again for bargains. The food program, which distributed more than 44,700 pounds of food in January, remains closed for now.
Budenske said she’s tired and doesn’t know if she’ll stay open, but I don’t think she’s going to leave the program she’s put her heart and soul into for so many years. She tried to retire three years ago, but the crew that took over the store and moved it to north Casper couldn’t keep it open. Budenske returned to the 5,000-square-foot building at 450 S. Wolcott — the one with all of the code problems — and started anew.
If she is going to remain in business, Budenske needs some help beyond the 40 volunteers she keeps busy. Poverty Resistance doesn’t have any heat, and the manager said she’s seen coffee cups freeze over inside the building.
The owner who rents the space to the program told city officials that he will pay to bring the building’s electrical code violations into compliance, but extras — like heat — are up to Poverty Resistance to install. Budenske estimated the cost of everything the program wants to add is about $6,300.
“That’s not a lot of money,” she noted. “But this isn’t really about money. There are just so many headaches to keep this program running here.”
The fire department’s job is to make certain that safety violations are pointed out and fixed. But it appears that the primary motivation for the latest inspection, which was conducted the same night a search warrant was executed, was to crack down on Budenske’s humane effort to protect people who had no place else to stay if she hadn’t taken them in.
In 1994, Budenske tried to move Poverty Resistance to a new location where the Iris Theatre now sits on West 2nd Street. A new building was planned, but she said the Republicans’ “Contract With America” led to budget cuts that wiped out most of the federal grants she sought. Then the state wanted the program to pay to clean up pollution problems on the property left by a business that had closed about 30 years ago.
The old Wolcott building became vacant, so Poverty Resistance moved back in. There had been a fire while the program was gone, but Budenske said no other fires have occurred. The fire department inspected the building about every 18 months, and she dealt with safety issues as they arose.
Other anti-poverty programs in Casper also faced safety problems. A new homeless shelter, the House of Hope, was eventually closed by the city when it couldn’t raise enough money to fix its sprinkler system and electrical code violations in its kitchen.
The city’s main homeless shelter, the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission, has been routinely full this winter. The Interfaith program, which in the past has paid for motel rooms for the homeless in freezing weather, ran out of money. Budenske began allowing some homeless people to stay at Poverty Resistance, sleeping on mattresses that had been donated by Casper College.
This drew the ire of the fire department, which presented Budenske with a cease-and-desist order. She said the program began turning people away, only to have individual police officers come to the store and ask her to let people found freezing in doorways and parks stay overnight. Budenske let them in.
On Jan. 24, a search warrant was served on Poverty Resistance and fire officials searched every nook and cranny without finding any homeless people. “They even went into the basement, and I haven’t been in the basement in 20 years,” Budenske said.
She was told that officials found six different safety violations, but she didn’t get a citation for another 10 days. About a month after the search warrant was executed, she finally received the required letter from the city detailing what needs to be fixed. But Budenske said the letter was incomplete, and she only learned about some of the building’s repair needs by reading a bid from an electrician. “I don’t think that constitutes written notice from the city,” she said.
Budenske said the city cited her last summer when donations during the height of garage sale season blocked the sidewalk in front of the store. Given only one afternoon to clear the area, instead of the 10 days required in the city’s books, the program had no choice but to throw more than $1,000 worth of donations away.
Then police had a problem with the two trucks that deliver food to the pantry blocking the roadway. Both issues have been resolved, but Budenske said it’s all taken a toll on her and the program.
The manager said if all of the electrical problems are fixed, she will still have issues with lack of storage space, and the homeless problem will still exist.
Poverty Resistance, the mission and other programs have done great work over the years to help the needy, but it is mindboggling that in a city with so many philanthropic endeavors more resources haven’t been devoted to making sure people have basic shelter. The Natrona County School District has estimated that at any given time, 40 to 50 students are homeless. They sleep in their cars or couch-surf at friends’ homes.
Budenske knows the restrictions the city has put on her ability to provide shelter, but it’s just not in her nature to sit idly by while people freeze. She said she knows of people who became ill from staying outside and had to be hospitalized. “Some people have died,” she said.
City Manager John Patterson, who said he is a supporter of Budenske and who wants her business to stay open, noted that the city government is working to address its chronic homeless problem through its Housing First Initiative. The help can’t come soon enough.
But in the meantime, I hope some other officials in the city find a way to cut Budenske some much-needed slack, so she can keep helping people who desperately need it. Yes, safety regulations must be followed, but the city should follow its own ordinances and give her enough time to correct the problems. Instead of hitting her with multiple citations, taking her to court and trying to make her so frustrated she quits, why not work with her?
If Budenske is forced out of business, it will be a sad day for the city of Casper. Her story of compassion and care needs to continue.
— Kerry Drake of Casper has 37 years of experience as a reporter, columnist and editor at Wyoming’s two largest daily newspapers.
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