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No more room at the inn: Oil boom causes homeless to grow

BISMARCK -- Betsy Kelley tries to tell people not to move to Williston unless they have a plan, but it doesn't always work. "A lot of them don't believe us when we say there's zero housing," said Kelley, the homeless liaison for Williston Public ...

BISMARCK -- Betsy Kelley tries to tell people not to move to Williston unless they have a plan, but it doesn't always work.

"A lot of them don't believe us when we say there's zero housing," said Kelley, the homeless liaison for Williston Public Schools. "We tell them, 'Don't come until you have housing secured,' and a couple of them get irritated at us."

More people are arriving in the city every week due to the national media spotlight on job openings in western North Dakota, but people aren't getting the full picture of the challenges involved, said Deeann Long of Williston's Community Action.

Long said her agency gets calls from people saying they want a job in Williston and then asking where the homeless shelter is.

"I tell them, 'We don't have that and, as a community, our resources are stretched. So, you can't just come to our community and expect us as a community to provide for you. You need to provide for yourself,'" she said.


Tight space, more homeless

The rapid population growth associated with the oil boom has created a housing and hotel room crunch in the Oil Patch, prompting people flocking to the area to have no other option at times than to live in cars and campers.

It's hard to know how many people in Williston are homeless, Long said. She estimated a couple of thousand, which includes those living with other people because they can't afford a place of their own due to rising housing costs or because they can't find one.

The lack of housing has increased the number of homeless students in the Williston School District this year. At the end of the last school year, there were 70 to 80 homeless students, Kelley said.

That number climbed to 91 earlier this week and was expected to reach 100 by the end of Friday. Kelley said 25 families live in campers, 30 families live doubled up with other family or friends, and others live in hotels, cars or wherever they can find shelter.

Every day, people get off the bus in Williston without a place to stay, said Nick Johnson, executive director of Upper Missouri Ministries in nearby Epping. He worries what will happen to the homeless population when the weather dips to 20 or 30 below this winter.

"There could be thousands of people in campers that may not be able to endure a week or two of that," he said.

Community effort


Afraid that people will freeze to death this winter, Williston organizations are working together to try to provide shelter for the growing homeless population. Twenty-five representatives from different faith communities met this past week to discuss the issue, Johnson said.

"Every faith community in town has been inundated with people who need not just food and clothing like normal, but also a place to stay," Johnson said.

Williston Salvation Army Capt. Josh Stansbury said they are in the preliminary stages of developing an overnight shelter for the winter months that would have volunteer staff standing guard each night. With the increasing population and uncertainty about people's backgrounds, the staff would help with security and crowd control, he said.

State help?

The Rev. Mark Narum met with Gov. Jack Dalrymple this week to let him know about the effort.

"The governor showed deep concern and, at the same time, deep appreciation that local people are looking for the solution and are just looking for a partnership," said Narum, bishop of the Western North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Narum said he wasn't asking for money or looking "to drop this in the state's lap." He said he wanted to know if state help would be available if there are any roadblocks.

Dalrymple asked Narum to continue working with the governor's office and local officials to help meet the region's housing needs, Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said.


"Gov. Dalrymple is aware of the housing challenges in the state's oil and gas counties, and he continues to work with local officials to address them," Zent said.

Johnson said he knows the city of Williston doesn't want to cut off people from coming, and businesses need workers. But he said it's a dangerous time of year to come to North Dakota without a place to live.

Stansbury said resources just aren't available to house all of the people arriving, but they don't always believe it. He said callers get angry and accuse him and his wife of not wanting people to come to Williston.

"It's not that we don't want people to come," he said. "It's that we want people to be safe."

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