- Associated Press - Monday, February 23, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Homelessness came upon Kort Madden, a veteran of the Marine Corps, swiftly when he began experiencing cardiac problems from an infection that spread to his leg, forcing him to quit work and seek services.

Like many, Madden was lured to North Dakota by the prospect of better opportunities, but his expectations were disappointed when he was unable to rent an apartment, despite earning $18 an hour as a full-time flagger.

Even before his health deteriorated, Madden was living in an RV because rents in Williston were too high and vacancy rates too low.

“If you told me I’d be in this position a year and four months ago, I would’ve laughed about it,” he told the Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1zlVCun ).

The landscape of North Dakota’s economy changed during the oil boom, but not all of the changes were beneficial. The homeless population in the state has increased exponentially since 2006, when the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People’s point-in-time count of unsheltered individuals went from 739 to 2,069 in 2013.



Yet, the point-in-time survey is limited to the homeless individuals who are unsheltered that day, and it doesn’t count individuals in shelters, motels or those who are doubled up, which means the number could be substantially greater, said Michael Carbone, executive director of the NDCHP.

This rise is in direct correlation with the influx of people that arrived in Western North Dakota seeking jobs.

“They’re coming from all over because we have billboards everywhere saying ‘come to North Dakota,’” said Nicole Schurhamer, Housing Choice Vouchers supervisor at the Burleigh County Housing Authority.

The reality is North Dakota is a state with small cities and even smaller towns that doesn’t have the facilities to house thousands of men and families.

“Nobody anticipated the influx of people that were going to be coming,” said Jolene Kline, executive director of the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency. “We aren’t able to respond quick enough to meet all of the needs. We had affordable housing issues pre-energy boom activity, but those issues have grown exponentially.”

Rental prices across the state have increased over the past 10 years, with apartments in Williston, the highest in the state, going for $2,500 for a one-bedroom unit.

Vacancy rates also are at an all-time low at 1 percent, and hotels and motels are full as well in Williston, Madden said.

“People come here with really no housing lined up, and a lot of them come thinking they’re going to get a job right away,” said Dwight Barden, executive director of the Burleigh County Housing Authority. “They may get a job, but they’re not going to get paid for a few weeks.”

Some don’t feel like they have an option, said Tammy Tescher, caseworker for Supportive Service for Veteran Families in Western North Dakota. She gets calls from veterans asking about services before even reaching North Dakota because they expect to be homeless when they get here.

“Those are people who aren’t even here yet and aren’t even homeless, but are willing to become homeless to move here,” Tescher said. “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing where they are.”

The majority of people experiencing homelessness in the western part of the state are single men. But they aren’t the only people affected.

“With so much demand on the existing housing stock, landlords were able to raise their rents above the reach of the working middle-class people,” Kline said. “It put undue stress on people with fixed incomes like the elderly and people with disabilities. They’re some of the people that become homeless as a result of these increased rents.”

The same stress has traveled east across the state while people search for affordable housing.

Prices in Bismarck, Minot, Fargo and Grand Forks followed, and agencies and service organizations are not finding the problem any easier.

“Those agencies that do have service to provide are finding themselves greatly overtaxed,” Carbone said. “Everyone is overwhelmed with what is right in front of them. It’s hard for them to do long-term planning.”

Although building affordable housing has progressed with 277 Housing Incentive Fund units for homeless and very low-income individuals from 2011 to 2013, the effort has been stalled by lack of funding.

“We still get basically the same amount of federal dollars that we received 15 years ago, and the cost of construction went up so high that those dollars built fewer and fewer units each year,” Kline said. “The state legislature in 2013 gave us $35.4 million to help create affordable rental housing and that was anticipated to last for the biennium. We went through that in about five months.”

While the N.D. Housing Agency is stalled, county housing funds that provide rental assistance are seeing a similar issue.

Burleigh County Housing Authority has about 1,200 people on its waiting list. However, it can only serve 800 units, though its contract allows it to serve 1,075 people.

“Our funding has been cut. Plus, when we’re paying out more per unit because of the increase in rents, the fewer families we can support,” Barden said.

The Stark County Housing Authority doesn’t have a waiting list because the housing choice vouchers are useless.

Blake Strehlow, director of the Stark County Housing Authority, said the fair market rent in Dickinson is too far above the payment standard, which means the vouchers can’t be used for apartments above a certain rent.

For a one-bedroom unit, the housing authority could provide assistance for an apartment that requires up to $781 in rent, but rental prices in Dickinson exceed $1,000.

In Western North Dakota, this leaves people with few options since there are no emergency shelters.

Many, such as Madden, live in RVs, which can be difficult, he said, because RV camps, and also tent camps, are not allowed inside Williston.

Madden said it costs money to go back and forth to Williston to work or find jobs and the cost of living in RV has gone up as well.

“People with RVs try to find a place where they can hook up for water and all that stuff,” he said. “They really start raising prices on that to $900 to $1,200 for a spot in a lot, so that makes it difficult for people to get coordinated.”

Living in an RV also isn’t ideal when the weather gets cold, Madden said.

“I was using my RV as a means of transportation, plus getting propane and living in it,” he said. “My RV’s not winterized, so fall and spring it’s OK, but wintertime? It’s not something you want to go and sleep in.”

Others were living doubled up in apartments or houses, sometimes five men in a one-bedroom unit, Madden said.

“In some places, there is like a tent city within four walls,” he said.

The biggest problem in the west, though, Madden said, is the lack of services, especially a homeless shelter.

Madden moved to Bismarck when his health got worse, and he found Ruth Meiers Hospitality House.

“I had no idea about a homeless shelter,” he said. “It was a fluke that there was this homeless shelter I didn’t know anything about, and it was good to have a place to hang my hat until I got things worked out.”

If it hadn’t been for Ruth Meiers and the VA, Madden said he would not have any housing.

“I would be in a hurt locker. Some people just need that little bit of help. Williston needs to get some sort of a system, so that they can help the guys,” he said.

Tescher said that the west is lacking a variety of services, including transportation, alcohol treatment, mental health services, a VA hospital and services for women, as well as shelter and housing assistance.

Tescher, who is the only SSVF case worker for the entire western region of North Dakota, said the state needs to focus more on the western part of the state.

“There’s money there, and you have a community that’s willing,” Tescher said.

The key is in long-term planning and connecting services for a more robust system in connection with other solutions, according to Carbone.

“What’s missing from the homeless system in the state right now is adequate planning and everyone is in such a state of frenzy trying to keep up with the increased demand that there’s a challenge doing the long-range planning to identify gaps within the system itself and planning how to fill those gaps,” he said.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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