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Homeless In Fargo At The Heart Of An Oil Boom


The lure of high-paying oil-related jobs in western North Dakota has drawn thousands of people to the region. Many find work, but some of those who don't find despair. There's a dramatic rise in homelessness and sky-high housing cost are partly to blame. This year's Arctic temperatures are causing a second migration to cities farther east.

We're covering the Great Plains oil rush in a series of stories. And today, a report on those eastern towns struggling to cope with their new homeless populations. Here's Meg Luther Lindholm in Fargo.

HY LITTLE: What's going on, brother? How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Doing fine, bro.

LITTLE: All right.

MEG LUTHER LINDHOLM, BYLINE: It's early evening and Hy Little is walking around the Churches United homeless shelter chatting with people before dinner. He's grateful to be warm today with a roof over his head in Moorhead, Minnesota. Little is some 400 miles from western North Dakota where he went months ago seeking an oil job. But he feels a world away from the fear he had of dying in the subzero cold.

LITTLE: Fear is a word that best describes how you feel when you know it's cold and all you have is a jacket and a suitcase.

LINDHOLM: When he set out from California last November, being homeless was the last thing that came to mind.

LITTLE: I literally took a leap of faith, spending every dime I had to get to North Dakota.

LINDHOLM: His goal was to find a welding job, but he couldn't get hired. So he started applying for retail and fast food jobs. But by then, it was too late and he found himself preoccupied with just trying to survive in the worsening climate. Feelings of desperation took hold.

LITTLE: You can't just walk to another town. You can't just camp out anywhere without the fear of freezing to death. And you literally can't seem to think straight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All righty. You are all set then.

LINDHOLM: Over in Fargo, a supervisor is handing out bed assignments at the New Life Center for men. Gary Copass is there because he also tried and failed to find housing out west.

GARY COPASS: What motels I did find were, like, really outrageous, $200 a night and more.

LINDHOLM: Without a homeless shelter in Williston, Copass soon felt his only option was to leave.

COPASS: I'm a quick learner. If I see something that is not going to work, I walk away from it.

LINDHOLM: Homelessness in the center of the oil boom isn't a small problem. A census last year found almost a thousand people living either in their vehicles or wherever they could find refuge from the bone-chilling cold. While many try to tough it out, others look for a way to get out. And that often means heading east. In fact, agencies like the Salvation Army in Williston are helping people buy bus tickets. Joshua Stansbury says his priority is to get people to safety.

JOSHUA STANSBURY: It's an extremely valuable service that we offer. They may not have the money to buy the ticket themselves, and so we're here to be able to help out.

LINDHOLM: But many homeless people who head east also have other problems, like substance abuse or mental illness. And Michael Carbone, who heads the state's homeless coalition, says treatment out west is nearly impossible to find.

MICHAEL CARBONE: You're hard-pressed to find a psychiatrist out there. And so, that puts a great deal of burden on the health services that exist in the eastern part of the state.

LINDHOLM: There's also the burden of severe overcrowding at area shelters.

CARBONE: What we're seeing in Fargo-Moorhead now is shelters are pretty much always above 100 percent capacity.

LINDHOLM: The Churches United shelter has 65 beds. But more than a hundred people show up most nights in winter.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Gary, Daryl, Brett. OK. You guys can go out to the bus.

LINDHOLM: People who can't get a spot at local shelters are sent by bus to a local church for the night. No one is sent back out into the cold.

Where does the money come from?

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says his city shouldn't have to shoulder the burden of housing and feeding the homeless who have come from the oil fields.

MAYOR DENNIS WALAKER: People have to understand there's a problem and unless we address it as a statewide community and the sooner the better or this will continue to grow.

LINDHOLM: Out in western North Dakota, the city of Williston does plan to open its first homeless shelter soon. As for Fargo's ambitious 10-year plan to end homelessness, that's a goal that has faded into the vast North Dakota horizon, at least for now. For NPR news, I'm Meg Luther Lindholm in Fargo.


SIEGEL: Our Oil Rush series continues on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY with the story on the rise in prostitution in the new oil-rich region.



This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meg Lindholm

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