‘A rather dire picture’: Employment ‘Mecca’ unfulfilled, N.D. homelessness becoming a problem

North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the United States and boasts a robust economy with jobs for anyone to take. Many people move here and look to the state as a “Mecca” of sorts where they can start anew.

“We have the most unique situation in the country right now,” said Michael Carbone, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People. “At a time when homelessness is diminishing in most states, ours is growing.”

The problem is there’s nowhere to live and the expectations newcomers had for their lives here are not being met.

“You can call North Dakota the Mecca, if you will, because they have the unemployment rate and they have employment” opportunities, Louis “Mac” McLeod, the executive director of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition said of why people continue to come here. “People have not done enough research into what is actually transpiring in our area, like checking out the housing market first and seeing what is available. They just hear that there are jobs and they get into the first thing that’s smoking.”

“We can’t blame anyone for wanting to improve their lot in life,” Carbone said. “But the concept of 30 (degrees) below was never something they considered.”

“We do have several individuals who are sleeping in their vehicles. It seems that has become part of the norm since rent is so high and people cannot afford to pay the rents to put a roof over their head,” McLeod said. “Some of these individuals, how should we say, are working but they don’t have the means to (stay stable). You’ll see some living in their cars or in pop-up campers around town.”

Three homeless people have already frozen to death in the harsh winters of the state, but those are just the documented cases. Carbone expects that number to be higher and considers the possibility a growing concern.

“It’s kind of a catch-22. The state is doing wonderfully economically,” McLeod said, “but there’s no one who could have anticipated the number of people who were going to migrate to North Dakota … The numbers are more than we anticipated.”

The state “really first became alarmed” at the number of homeless in 2009, according to Carbone. Until then homeless numbers had been on the decline and most of the homeless population was centered in the largest cities to the east, like Fargo, which had shelters and other resources to tend to the problems. He said that the homeless are often seen as the canaries in the mine, the warnings of problems or of crisis.

“They’re the most vulnerable among us and they’re the first to suffer,” Carbone said.

By 2011, the state homeless survey reported a larger number of unsheltered homeless to sheltered homeless and they were living in their cars, grain bins, abandoned buildings and anywhere they could in some way remove themselves from the elements.

“There’s a pride factor,” McLeod said. “You can just imagine it was you and all along you’ve been able to fend for yourself and then unforeseen circumstances plunge you into the depths of despair and into a homeless situation and now you actually have to bow down and go ‘hey, I need help.’ North Dakotans are notorious for saying ‘we’ll do it ourselves.’ Lots of pride.”

People often don’t come seeking the resources and help they need until the need has already taken a full hold on their lives. People should seek assistance at the first sign of struggle, like when they know they will fall behind on a month’s rent, rather than months later, like at the point of eviction.

“Most agencies can’t pay three months back rent,” McLeod said.

“Rents have sky-rocketed while vacancy rates have plummeted,” Carbone said.

It’s the things that aren’t planned for that lead people into trouble, and both McLeod and Carbone agree with the idea that some had saved to get here but didn’t look further than that.

“If they can’t get what they’re looking for then they don’t want to search out the other jobs. We have jobs, period. It’s not all oil,” McLeod said.

He spoke about the oil jobs people are coming for and the riches promised in the pay rates, but they don’t realize that the most employable positions in the industry are for geologists and top-qualified commercial truck drivers.

“Not everyone is going to make $20 and up,” McLeod said.

People working traditionally minimum-wage positions like being a fry-cook in a fast-food restaurant in North Dakota now make much more than their equivalents or even traditionally better-paid factory workers elsewhere in the country.

Both Carbone and McLeod agree that the image of the homeless as presented by “panhandlers” with signs asking for help is false. Very few homeless people panhandle, Carbone said, although he did not have statistics detailing the percentage. McLeod has said that he has posed as a homeless person and has spoken with some of the panhandlers. They report they’re often making $250 to $300 a day and have simply chosen that lifetsyle rather than to find actual work. All the money they collect in handouts is tax free and McLeod stresses there are legitimite organizations people can help fund that will help the homeless along.

He then said three truths: North Dakota has jobs, North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate, and that this is a nice place to live.

“The one thing that gets lost out of the whole thing is the housing issue,” McLeod said. “We tell them, straightforward, that they’re not going to find housing,”

McLeod’s office is a small two-room set-up stacked to the ceiling with emergency food items. Phone numbers of other resources for the homeless and the needy line the walls. The entire organization is composed of just two people but services seven counties with Minot as its hub.

McLeod said 70 percent of North Dakota’s homeless population is composed of natives or long-time residents with the remaining 30 being newcomers. Residents are getting priced out and are beginning to have their own problems. They’ve worked the same job for years, often times, and never needed a cost of living adjustment and never received one. Rents in the Minot area are now on par with those of New York or Los Angeles, but paychecks last adjusted years before are not capable of handling the change.

The 2011 Souris River flood acted as a double-whammy along with the influx of people for the Minot area. Service numbers at the coalition office were down that year due to assistance from FEMA following the disaster, but the numbers returned stronger than ever in 2012 and 2013 is not looking to be any better.

“About a third of the homeless in North Dakota are under 18, some with families but some without,” Carbone said.

In the past, homelessness in the state centered around single people but now there is a growing number of families.

“One of the leading indicators for homelessness as an adult is if you had a homeless experience as a child,” Carbone said.

North Dakota’s west, due to the influx of people seeking oil work, has the fastest growing number of homeless, but the effect is spreading eastward across the state and even into western Minnesota, Carbone said. Agencies in the west were unprepared and they had little choice but to send their homeless to areas better equipped to deal with it “and that’s bad policy.”

“Service providers are all busy metaphorically putting out fires,” Carbone said of local agencies dealing with immediate needs. “We need both short-term and long-term solutions. We need the government sector, we need the private sector … we need statewide solutions for this problem. We can’t think of it as an oil-patch problem … We have to think about this as a statewide problem because that’s what it has become.”

This is the first in a two-part series about homelessness in the Minot area as well as the state at large. Next week’s story will focus on support systems available to those in need.