Social Issues

Fargoans find safety, community in homeless encampment under First Avenue bridge

Three people sit under a bridge
(From left to right): Zach Glasscock, Mackenzie Higdem and James "Wax" Chloupek talk about living while homeless on June 25 under the First Avenue North bridge in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer | The Forum

Several people have found shelter and community in a tiny tent city under a bustling bridge connecting downtown Fargo and Moorhead.

The reasons they ended up here are endless; so, too, is their quest to escape and find housing.

“Nobody wants to be here,” Fargo resident Zach Glasscock told The Forum. “There is always a reason why we’re in poverty, you know what I mean?"

Many people are dealing with their mental health or navigating addiction, he said, on top of the day-to-day struggles that accompany being unhoused.

“Everybody has got their own circumstances,” Glasscock said. “We’re trying to get better, but it’s hard once you get here.”

Man sits
Zach Glasscock chats about homelessness in Fargo on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, under the First Avenue North bridge in downtown Fargo
Alyssa Goelzer | The Forum

Under this bridge, night after night, it’s hard not to feel like society has given up on them.

“It kind of feels like we’re forgotten,” Glasscock said.

He was sitting under the First Avenue North bridge surrounded by tents, belongings and friends when The Forum sat down to speak with them on Tuesday, June 25.

The sound of vehicles passing overhead rattles the ears and the metal beams with ceaseless repetition, offset only by the occasional blare of car horns.

On Tuesday, the group was listening to low music and chatting in a companionable circle in the camp that has become a safe shelter for many.

Their camp may be short-lived, however. The city of Fargo is weighing changes to its rules around encampments.

After two residents brought forward concerns about the community’s safety due to the encampments along the Red River, the city discussed prohibiting sleeping anywhere on public land except in city-run encampments for people experiencing homelessness.

The city can’t just take down the encampments, officials told the Fargo City Commission on June 24, because there is nowhere else for many of these people to go. There aren’t enough affordable housing options or shelter beds in the metro to accommodate the more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Already, these people feel the pinch of the city’s impending changes.

“The cops have harassed us,” Glasscock said. “There was one that came down here and was like, ‘Any day now, any day now we’re going to storm this place.’ ... That was a Fargo police officer.”

“Just another day under the bridge,” Gabriel Montgomery told The Forum.

He was wearing a set of blue hospital scrubs.

“This is what was given to me by the Downtown Engagement Center where I got a shower because I have no clothes,” he said.

Man sits and talks
Gabriel Montgomery talks about homelessness in Fargo on June 25 under the First Avenue North bridge.
Alyssa Goelzer | The Forum

He found a safe space to stay in this camp, he said, adding he understands people could get frightened as they walk, jog or bike by on the paved path and see all the people under the bridge. He stressed that no one in the camp is trying to hurt anyone or cause trouble.

“We actually have a lot of good people under the bridge,” he said.

As they sat there, people came in and out of their small circle to say hello while Gypsy, a happy-go-lucky dog, played nearby.

A man with a bike and dog
Brandon "Chubs" Gipson, along with his dog Gypsy, talks about homelessness in Fargo on June 25 under the First Avenue North bridge.
Alyssa Goelzer | The Forum

Her owner, Brandon “Chubs” Gipson, was one of the four friends who originally began sleeping under the bridge, marking the start of the encampment.

‘Why can’t we get the help that we need?’

Glasscock and Gipson first sought shelter under the bridge about a month ago with two other friends.

The group fell into homelessness together.

“We’ve just all been brothers,” Glasscock said.

When his friend lost his housing, Glasscock tried to help by taking him in. Glasscock said he was “wrongfully evicted” by his landlord soon after as a result.

“Why do people in poverty have to take care of each other?” he said. “Why can’t we get the help that we need? We live in one of the richest cities; give us more options.”

In the last month, they’ve created a small shelter and attracted more people going through hard times to their community. One of them cleans up the camp each morning.

“Our plans weren’t even to do something like this,” Glasscock said. “It just kind of made itself like this.”

There are anywhere from one to 15 people sleeping under the bridge each night, he said, because there isn’t any housing or shelter for them.

“There’s definitely more people coming here because they feel more safe. There’s a bridge over our head,” he said.

The bridge keeps them sheltered from “big storms” and out of the rain, he added, and provided a sense of security when tornado sirens went off in Fargo a few weeks ago.

A bridge
A homeless encampment is seen underneath the First Avenue North bridge on June 26.
Alyssa Goelzer | The Forum

The camp is filled with “loyal people” who add to the feeling of security for those sheltering there, he said. For many, the camp is a “safe space."

“We have every kind of sexuality, race, color around here, you know what I mean? They just kick it,” Glasscock said. “It’s not so bad because everybody kind of looks out for one another."

For some, the encampment is the only place they can go.

“It’s not ideal,” lifelong Fargo resident Mackenzie Higdem told The Forum. All the shelters are full, she added, so she has no other options.

She was born and raised in Fargo and, a few weeks ago, she happened to meet up with friends she knew from the homeless shelter years ago and started taking shelter under the bridge.

“Everyone is generally nice,” she said.

‘I don’t want to be here forever’

Glasscock moved to Fargo from Florida over 10 years ago.

He received some major health diagnoses recently, he said, including congestive heart failure, alcoholic hepatitis, pancreatitis and liver failure.

“It’s kind of dangerous for me not to be around somewhere stable,” he said. He recently got his health insurance back and was approved for Social Security and disability benefits, both of which took a long time.

Now, he is waiting for housing to open up. He got on the waiting list a month ago, he said, and hasn’t heard an update since.

“It’s scary, man. I don’t want to be here forever," Glasscock said.

Last month, he survived on $300. Now that his Social Security has begun, he receives $900 each month.

Even with his income, he can’t find a landlord who will rent to him because he has a criminal background and doesn’t meet the credit score requirements.

“They need to have more resources for people for housing,” Glasscock said. “Especially me with disabilities, I should be housed pretty quick.”

There is also a lack of resources for people struggling with their mental health, he said.

Glasscock has been managing mental health challenges since he was a kid.

However, the thing that got him on disability benefits was his heart failure, he said, because mental health needs still aren’t accepted or assisted by the state of North Dakota.

Many people he meets in the unhoused community are trying to navigate their own mental health needs — and the addictions that sometimes follow — without assistance, he said.

“There’s people that are here that need mental health (help), but there's not mental health outreach,” Glasscock said. “What happens if they get the help that they need?”

A homeless encampment
A homeless encampment is seen on June 25 under the First Avenue North bridge in downtown Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer | The Forum

People who are experiencing homelessness don’t want to be unhoused, he said, but they need services and help that isn’t readily available.

“If Fargo wants to grow, they need to think outside of the box and help us out, too,” he said, “Because we’re part of Fargo, as well.”

Short-term vs. long-term solutions

City officials are eyeing the Housing First strategy — a method that places people experiencing homelessness directly into housing instead of jumping through hoop after hoop — to end long-term homelessness in the metro.

However, that process is still in its infancy in Fargo despite attempts to get it off the ground in 2006.

In the short term, the city has developed a three-step plan to address safety concerns from housed residents who live and recreate along the Red River while still prioritizing the well-being of people living in encampments because the metro doesn’t have enough shelter for them.

The first step of this plan, approved for further study by the Fargo City Commission on June 24, involves passing an ordinance that prohibits camping on public lands.

Second, the city is considering creating a resolution to allow encampments only in specific areas. This would involve city-issued rules, staff told the commission, such as requiring a permit to camp there or time restrictions so that people have to pack up all their belongings each day.

Under this proposed plan, Downtown Engagement Center staff would continue outreach to unhoused people.

Third, staff proposed the city implement the Fargo Streets to Housed pilot project, which would immediately move 10 people living in encampments along the Red River into permanent homes.

Mixed reactions to Fargo’s plan

On Tuesday, the group spoke glowingly about the work being done by local service providers in the area, including the city-run Downtown Engagement Center that provides basic services like showers and laundry to unhoused people, the state-run Southeast Human Services Center that provides behavioral health services and private nonprofit F5 that helps people navigate incarceration, addiction and mental health.

However, many still feel abandoned as they wait under the bridge for housing. Delays in the system may seem trivial, but for people who are homeless, it can feel like an eternity.

This time next month, Glasscock hopes to be housed but, failing that, he hopes the city doesn’t make them leave their camp without anywhere to go.

Their camp isn’t making the community unsafe, he said, but the opposite.

“I think we make it more safe,” he said, by providing a “safe space” where people can hang out or find shelter when there’s nowhere else to go.

As for the proposed changes, the group’s reaction was mixed.

The pilot project that would give immediate housing to 10 people was well-received.

“Oh my God, that would be amazing,” Glasscock said. “That’s exactly what we need.”

Issuing fines to the people in the encampments won’t work if the fines are too steep to pay, Glasscock said. For some, serving jail time is easier than paying a fine.

Montgomery said he didn't like the idea of requiring people to camp in specific areas, pack up their belongings each morning and leave.

“There are those who make the rules and there are those who follow the rules,” he said. “I like to make my own rules because I do what I want, when I want and where I want because I want to, and no one is going to tell me otherwise.”

He isn’t out to bother anyone else, he said, just find shelter.

When asked where she sees herself a month from now, Higdem said right here, under the First Avenue bridge.

If they are removed, she doesn’t know where they would go.

“I don’t know where we’re supposed to go then,” Higdem said. “Just walk around all night?”

‘Why would you want to push us away?’

Encampments like this one run all along the Red River in the metro, James “Wax” Chloupek told The Forum.

Originally from Dilworth, he found himself homeless in Fargo after trying to open his doors to a friend who lost housing. He was kicked out of his apartment.

The Downtown Engagement Center was a “good resource” for him and helped him get back on his feet.

Chloupek found a place to live at the Cooper House — a supportive housing apartment building offered by Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority — but returns to visit his friends under the bridge.

The idea of the city pushing them out of the camp seems “un-American,” he said.

“What’s wrong with our tents being up?” he said. “Like, literally, it’s our shelters.”

Issuing fines to people for activities related to homelessness isn’t a solution, he said.

“None of us are where we want to be right now, you know what I mean?” Chloupek said. “So, why would you want to push us away?"