When 'Williston experiment' turns to homelessness, churches step in

For many new arrivals to North Dakota's oil patch, Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston is their first stop.

But they're not there for worship -- at least, not primarily. They come to the church for shelter in a town where affordable housing is nearly impossible to find.

From 9 p.m. to 6:15 a.m., Concordia hosts a rotating group of men who are seeking lucrative, but physically demanding, work in the Bakken Shale, which extends into eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, as well as western North Dakota. The number of men sleeping on cots and on the floor of the church varies from night to night, but all who secure a coveted spot must first meet the approval of the building's gatekeeper, Pastor Jay Reinke.

When Reinke sees young men who reek of alcohol and express little ambition to seek work in the oil fields, he recommends they go back where they came from.

"The Williston experiment isn't working for you," he tells them. "You need to go home."


And an experiment it is, for some. Left with no work in an ailing economy, many people are flocking to Williston and other energy hubs for a chance at a better life.

Counts conducted by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People show that the number of unsheltered individuals has grown from just a handful in 2009 to 1,433 in January of this year. Of that number, 84 percent said they came to North Dakota seeking a job or came with a friend who was looking for work.

Although many expect to earn starting salaries between $60,000 and $80,000 in the oil fields, those large paychecks are the result of long hours and hard labor, and not everyone is successful in the field. Those who cannot cut it in the oil business are being left to their own devices in cities where housing prices are so high that an energy industry paycheck is practically required to pay monthly rent, which runs about $1,000 per bedroom, according to local housing authorities.

Those without jobs are also left without the benefit of employer-provided housing, which is increasingly common in shale towns.

The new arrivals "stress the system to the point where it cannot serve the existing [homelessness] problem we had before all this happened," said Michael Carbone, executive director of the North Dakota homelessness coalition.

But officials in Williston and other cities have hesitated to build permanent shelters for fear of discouraging people without homes from finding their own residences. It's been a hard lesson for other energy boomtowns, such as Gillette, Wyo., which is still providing shelter and meals to people traveling to the town nearly 30 years after its coal boom went bust (EnergyWire, June 4, 2012).

"If you build a shelter, they will come," Reinke said.

Churches pitch in

With their large community spaces and ubiquitous presence -- even in the most rural of areas, where shale drilling tends to take place -- churches like Reinke's are proving to be the perfect locations for stopgap housing, all without establishing a permanent assistance base.

That's been the case in the Bakken town of Estevan, Saskatchewan, where a local church opened the town's first temporary shelter Dec. 1. When parishioners at the United Church of Canada St. Paul's began to hear from new arrivals and longtime residents that rents were more than double what they used to be, the church, in partnership with the Salvation Army, decided to help.

"Wherever there's some people getting wealthy, there's also a lot of people who aren't benefiting from that growth," said the Rev. Brenna Nickel.

She added that members of the community have felt compelled to help newcomers who are struggling to find a place.

"To move here and feel like you have to do things all alone can be really overwhelming," Nickel said.

Though the church has struggled to find volunteers to work on the weekend nights the shelter is open, the local grocery store has been generous with food donations, Nickel said.

The shelter, which is expected to be open seven nights a week next winter, will close its doors at the end of the month as spring thaws the winter freeze.

While Towanda, Pa.'s First Presbyterian Church has not opened a shelter of its own, it has helped many people through its Grace Connection, an emergency monetary assistance program. Through the Grace Connection, the church has helped people pay for food, shelter and other necessities.

Many of the town's homelessness issues have stemmed from the slowing of the local natural gas industry, which mines resources from the prolific Marcellus Shale. Facing low gas prices, companies in that area have cut back employees' hours or laid off workers altogether.

"We've had homeless, but not in this volume," said Grace Connection volunteer office manager Judy, who declined to share her last name after previous news interviews led to a barrage of calls for help at her home.

She estimated that the Grace Connection fielded requests from 35 families and individuals in 2012, which she said was "quite an increase" from what the organization typically sees.

Affordable housing measures

Permanent, institutional help is most likely to come in the form of affordable housing initiatives, which are emerging in Pennsylvania and North Dakota.

One of Pennsylvania's most notable housing programs is now funded through its 2012 Marcellus drilling law, known as Act 13. A provision of the law funnels industry-paid drilling impact fees to the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement (PHARE) Act, which has facilitated renovations of homes currently unfit for living and spurred a limited number of new housing developments.

"Discourage large developments of new homes which may become ghost towns after the shale workers move on," executives from the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania wrote in comments last year about the PHARE plan. "At the same time, encourage permanent housing rather than temporary shelters. Emergency shelters may be a necessary response to the current crisis, but they are not long-term solutions for people who were and can be self-sufficient as long as they have homes they can afford."

In 2011, the North Dakota Legislature authorized the Housing Incentive Fund, a voluntary taxpayer contribution program that rewards donors, many of which are oil and gas companies, with a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The funds received are then applied to planned housing projects, with the stipulation that developers include a certain percentage of affordable units.

Until those projects are completed, though, homeless people will have to continue to rely on the generosity of their neighbors.

Reinke, the pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, said he and his family have opened their own home to temporary visitors, and he has encouraged others in his community to do the same. He has pleaded with city officials to eliminate Williston's ban on recreational vehicles, which many oil workers had been using as homes. Measures like these, he said, alienate the workforce that has brought prosperity to the town.

"It is so easy to regard these oil workers as a problem. People in Williston, it's hard to welcome these guys," Reinke said. "When these guys walk [into the church], I tell them, 'You're a gift to us, you're a gift to Williston.'"

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