Oil creates jobs in ND, but not all find work -- or a home

Job bulletin board
North Dakota's strong economy is attracting job seekers; however, social service agencies warn there is not enough housing or even high-paying jobs to go around. Here, employment opportunities from the local newspaper are displayed on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, alongside a bulletin board at Stepping Stones Resource Center, a drop in center for homeless youth, in south Fargo, N.D.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

Oil production has brought an economic boom to North Dakota, helping it escape the nation's financial doldrums.

But in the midst of economic good times in North Dakota, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, a growing number of people are homeless.

Chris Johnson, who runs a transitional shelter and a drop in center for homeless youth in Fargo, has seen young men from as far away as Texas, Georgia and Florida this winter.

Fraser houses some of the young men in a 1920's vintage home in a south Fargo residential neighborhood. The five-bedroom home has five beds. An air mattress on the floor serves as its overflow bed.

"I know all the shelters are kind of busting at the seams," said Johnson, director of Community Services at Fraser, a Fargo social service agency. "But when it's 10 below that's your option, is to bust at the seams."

Like most shelters in Fargo-Moorhead, the shelter for young adults, which opened last fall, is full.

That points to the fact that not all of the newcomers are finding what they expected. Many are high school drop outs with limited skills who hear about the economic boom in North Dakota, Johnson said.

"Having oil is not a bad thing. Dickinson is thriving. But we are not taking care of our people very well."

"We might have some opportunities in the state of North Dakota, but that doesn't mean you all of a sudden have a college degree or you all of a sudden have people in positions of power who can make a reference for you," he said. "So it can kind of be misleading in terms of the opportunities available for people. Because it's not opportunities for all people."

Opportunity is bringing hundreds of job seekers to western North Dakota, where many communities don't even have emergency homeless shelters. Some don't have the skills to land a good oil field job. Others find a job but are still homeless.

In the past, the occasional homeless person was temporarily housed in a local hotel, said Mac McLeod, executive director of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition. Now there are no vacant hotel rooms.

McLeod said he receives about 20 calls a day from people expecting to find temporary shelter.

Karista Ray
Karista Ray, 17, is grateful for Stepping Stones Resource Center, a drop in center for homeless youth, in south Fargo, N.D. "It helps me get things that I need right now," said Ray, who stopped by on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011, to pick up laundry soap and left with laundry soap, a stocking cap, a new scarf and several other items. "I can rely on this place."
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

"They ask, 'Can you put us up for a month until we can get a job'? No, that's not possible. 'Well, I don't care, we're coming up anyway because you guys got jobs.'" Mcleod said. "You try to explain to them that is not a feasible course of action. But they don't want to hear it. They have been down and out so long the only thing they hear is jobs."

Mcleod said some people have been sleeping in cars. Many double bunk with someone who has an apartment. Rents have tripled in the past couple of years.

Dickinson is one of several western North Dakota towns where social service agencies are stretched to the limit. There is no homeless shelter in town.

This winter, local agencies are hearing from as many as 60 people a week who looking for shelter.

For the first time, the local school has hired a homeless liaison, said Darianne Johnson, who runs the local domestic violence shelter. People are sleeping in cars or cramming 10 people into a one bedroom apartment.

Johnson said she's heard people are renting unheated storage garages to sleep in.

Nolan Birnbaum
"I don't consider anywhere my home," said Nolan Birnbaum. The 18 year old visits Stepping Stones Resource Center, a drop in center for homeless youth, just about everyday. Here, Birnbaum passes time playing a video game on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

"A lot of these people have jobs," she said. "That's what so strange about it. A lot of these people have very good paying jobs. It's just that there is no place to live."

Like many western North Dakota communities, Dickinson has a building boom. There are new apartments and homes going up. But Johnson said they aren't affordable for people working lower level jobs.

She said social service agencies don't have enough resources and every day they turn away people who come for help.

"Most of our agencies are so overwhelmed with just trying to keep our heads above water," Johnson said. "I think this is bigger than anyone expected. Having oil is not a bad thing. Dickinson is thriving. But we are not taking care of our people very well, or the people that are coming in."

People will keep coming. Johnson said agencies have been warned to expect thousands of families to arrive in the next two years.

The growing homeless population is raising concern in many North Dakota communities, said Michael Carbone, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for the Homeless. He said towns that have never had a homeless shelter are now considering opening one.

"We need to get the message out that you shouldn't come to North Dakota expecting that all of a sudden you're going to be in the land of milk and honey," Carbone said. "Yes, we have a good economy, but there's not a job for every person in the country who is unemployed. There's not housing for everyone."

Carbone said a strong economy will continue to attract desperate job seekers. He said the state needs to find a way to help those who don't succeed in the booming economy.

"The fact that we're talking about the need for more shelter space in North Dakota, the fact that we've got smaller communities who are saying for the first time in their history they have a need for some sort of emergency shelter, that tells you something about the scope of homelessness in North Dakota," Carbone said.