North Dakota's quandary: Employed, but homeless

  • Article by: MONICA DAVEY , New York Times
  • Updated: April 24, 2010 - 10:02 PM

The recession bypassed the state, but a flood of new workers has created a monumental housing crisis.

WILLISTON, N.D. - When Joey Scott arrived here recently from Montana, he had no trouble finding work -- he signed almost immediately with a company working to drill in the oil fields. But finding housing was another matter.

Every motel in town was booked, some for months in advance. Every apartment complex, even every mobile home park, had a waiting list. Scott found himself sleeping in his pickup truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot, shaving and washing his hair in a puddle of melted snow.

"I've got a pocketful of money, but I just can't find a room," said Scott, 25.

North Dakota has a novel problem: plenty of jobs, but nowhere to put the people who hold them.

The same forces that have resulted in more homelessness elsewhere -- unemployment, foreclosure, economic misery -- have pushed laid-off workers from California, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Wyoming to jobs here, especially in the booming oil fields.

But in this city rising from the long empty stretches of North Dakota, hundreds are sleeping in their cars or living in motel rooms, pup tents and tiny campers meant for weekend getaways in warmer climes. They are staying on cots in offices and in sleeping bags in the basements of people they barely know.

Housing pinch to grow worse

North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, 4 percent, but advocates for the homeless say the number of people they see with nowhere to live -- a relatively rare occurrence here until now -- grew to 987 in 2009 from 832 in 2008, an increase of about 19 percent.

And the problem is certain to worsen this summer as oil companies call for more rigs and thousands more workers.

"It's hard to know where this might end," said E. Ward Koeser, mayor of Williston, who met this month with the governor of North Dakota to plead for state help with the housing crisis. "It's the one thing that sometimes wakes me up in the morning and doesn't let me go to sleep," he said, acknowledging that most mayors can only dream of having such a problem.

Still, where will all these newcomers live?

"I don't know," said Koeser, whose city had about 12,000 people at last count, but may now be closer to 15,000. "We literally have no place."

Cranes dot the city, proof that a building boom is underway, but not fast enough.

Dodging the recession

While the rest of the country was sinking into recession, North Dakota never did. Other states nursed budget deficits, but North Dakota, even now, has a surplus. The state has a wealth of other jobs. A rise in oil production here, especially, served as an antidote to any whiff of what the rest of the nation was witnessing.

In motels here, some people have stayed so long that they know their neighbors down the hall. Dinner comes from a microwave. "It's a horrible way to live," said Chris Rosmus, a Minnesotan who moved into the Vegas Motel for a month and stayed a year and a half.

If the problems are bad for oil workers, who are well paid, they are worse for locals in less lucrative jobs, who have seen their rents soar.

There are houses for sale here, but many of the newcomers arrive from grim chapters -- foreclosures, bankruptcies, layoffs. They have little hope of qualifying for mortgages.

For all of these struggles, few here say they wish to go back to where they came from.

Jana and Robert Stout stayed in motel after motel for four months. When Robert left for his oil job in the mornings, Jana climbed into her Buick and began the hunt for the next place. Often she sat much of the day in motel parking lots, waiting for vacancies to open up. A few weeks ago, the Stouts got off a waiting list at a motel that had been booked for two years. They can stay there indefinitely -- for $450 a month. The room is tiny, big enough for a bed, a television and a hot plate. Jana Stout's grown daughter and granddaughter may need to sleep on the floor, if they cannot find a place.

Still, the Stouts said they would never consider returning to Wyoming, where they used to live. "For what?" Jana Stout said. "If I was home right now, I would be way worse. There is potential here."

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