WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Combatting the Homeless Crisis With Compassion
Wren Fialka strives to alleviate the suffering of unhoused populations
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Nov 29, 2023
By Melissa Thomasma
Special to the Wyoming Truth
At age 8, red-haired Wren Fialka tagged alongside her mother and helped homeless people in Washington, D.C. cultivate vegetable gardens. As she snagged some cherry tomatoes that were growing in a traffic island, Fialka had an encounter that would ignite her compassion and impact her career path.
“This beautiful elder came up to me, an older Black man with gorgeous gray dreadlocks, and he just had this energy I’d never encountered in anyone in my life before,” Fialka told the Wyoming Truth. “It was one of those moments where time stands still. He started telling me about his experience with being homeless and what homelessness was.”
Fialka was shocked to see the disrespectful — even disdainful — way that passersby treated the man.
“From that day forward, anywhere I’ve traveled, people that were experiencing homelessness have always been my guiding stars,” she said.
Now 55, with hair still as red as a cherry tomato, Fialka is the founder and executive director of the Spread the Love Commission, a Jackson-based nonprofit that assists people experiencing homelessness. In addition to serving unhoused people in Teton County and on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, she has conducted over 70 outreach missions in 40 communities nationwide, including Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles and New York City.
Fialka and her team of volunteers, including those in the unhoused population, cultivate relationships with inhabitants of encampments. They distribute an array of items, ranging from health and hygiene kits to outerwear and survival gear like tents and sleeping pads. Fialka accesses the surplus of quality gear within Teton County and collects gently-used items and contributions from business sponsors.
“We supplement the rest by purchasing from businesses that align with our values,” she said.
Spread the Love Commission also partners with other non-governmental organizations — in Wyoming and outside the state — that provide food, health care and veterinary care for homeless pets.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, nearly 650 people are homeless on any given night in Wyoming — a number the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says has increased by over 20% since 2007. Though it’s impossible to discern the precise number, the agency estimates that up to 50 of these individuals reside in Teton County. Given the staggering housing crisis in Jackson Hole, many others fall into a category of “underhoused” or on the brink of homelessness, Fialka said.
And the face of homelessness in Wyoming doesn’t fit the stereotype of unhoused people on urban street corners.
“Homelessness can be living in an overcrowded apartment with strangers that you don’t trust around your children, or living in somebody’s garage without heat or running water… or in your car living in the woods,” Fialka said.
Fialka, who began her career as a social worker, manages an operating budget of just over $200,000 — mostly from donations and the annual Old Bill’s Fun Run — and over $127,000 in noncash gifts. She leads two part-time employees and hundreds of volunteers.
In 2014, Fialka launched Spread the Love Commission after a life-changing conversation with an unhoused man in San Francisco. She wanted to help him, but wasn’t sure how. So she asked him, “If I were to bring you a small bag of things tomorrow that would make your day to day better, what would be in it?” The man listed some items — including nonperishable snacks, bandages and underwear — and Fialka delivered.
Since Spread the Love Commission’s inception, Fialka has never assumed what people need; instead, she asks questions and listens to the answers. Fialka also implements outreach in a way that has directly contributed to the organization’s success, said board president Craig Logan. By incorporating clients into volunteer operations, more doors are opened and trust is gained more quickly.
“It’s a unique aspect of how the Spread the Love Commission operates: Wren believes that the issue of homelessness will be solved by those experiencing it,” Logan said. “Wren’s model gives the organization extra credibility within homeless communities.”
As a result of Fialka’s efforts, almost $1 million in high-quality gear, clothing and hygiene kits have been donated to the unhoused across the country in the past decade, he added.
A misunderstood crisis
Fialka said homelessness is the most widely misunderstood humanitarian crisis in the world, largely because those experiencing it face fierce judgment. Frequently, she hears folks attribute it to mental illness, criminal behavior, addiction or laziness. The truth is far more complicated, and a key element of her work is expanding people’s understanding of homelessness.
“[For] the large majority of people that are experiencing homelessness, it is not a lifestyle choice, it is horrendous, it is an absolute living nightmare all the time,” Fialka said.
Many unhoused people bear the invisible scars of trauma — both from previous events and from the difficulties of living without stable housing — which can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Substance use becomes self-medication to endure the unrelenting hardships of homelessness or a resource for self-protection to stay awake through the night when it’s most dangerous, Fialka said.
Informed conversations around homelessness are the key to eroding the stigma and building sustainable solutions to the crisis, Fialka said.
Earlier this year, she spearheaded a task force in Teton County to address the challenges that local homeless people face. In collaboration with the Teton County Library, Jackson Police Department and other social service organizations, the group meets monthly to better understand the community’s resources and difficulties around unhoused individuals and families.
Fialka’s drive to alleviate homelessness shows no signs of slowing. She’s inspired most by people who speak courageously about the needs of others that are unmet or ignored — “the care, justice, dignity and love that we all deserve,” she said. “We obviously need quite a bit more of that in our world.”