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James MacPherson, Associated Press Writer, Published February 08 2010

Jobless in North Dakota adding to homeless problem

BISMARCK – More than almost any other state, North Dakota has escaped the worst effects of the national recession, but with its good fortune has come an unexpected problem: homelessness, as desperate job seekers flow into the state looking for work.

Statewide, shelters are full, and soup kitchens are feeding as many as they can. Some homeless newcomers are living in cars, but as temperatures linger below freezing, many are bunking with acquaintances to avoid freezing.

Many of the job seekers came to North Dakota without researching jobs or housing, said Louis “Mac” McLeod, executive director of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition. They arrive to find they are unqualified for the work that exists, or if they land a job, they can’t get housing, which is scarce.

“If you got a roof over your head, stay there,” McLeod advised. “We want people to come to North Dakota, but we don’t want people coming here and not being able to survive.”

Most don’t understand how severe North Dakota’s winters are, he said: “Put your hand in a freezer for five minutes – welcome to North Dakota.”

Eric Cisneros, 27, drove 700 miles from Colorado to North Dakota about three weeks ago on a tip from a buddy who landed a job in the oil fields. He’s been spending nights in his truck or staying with new acquaintances in Minot. The town of about 36,000 is home to a college and a U.S. Air Force Base but has no permanent shelter for the homeless.

Most of North Dakota’s smaller cities and towns lack shelters and other services for the homeless. That may be because large-scale homelessness hasn’t been a widespread problem before.

Last year, 987 homeless people were counted in a survey that recorded people encountered by volunteers in a single day, said Michael Carbone, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People. That was an 18 percent increase from the previous year’s count of 836. This year’s figures aren’t yet available.

Cisneros said he plans to tough it out even though North Dakota is “probably the coldest place on the planet.”

In Colorado, he worked as a laborer and carpenter, competing with dozens of people for each job. In Minot, he found a job as a cashier at a truck stop and has applied for oil industry jobs.

“Initially, it’s been tough in North Dakota but in the long run, I think it will be worth it, because there are jobs here,” Cisneros said.

North Dakota has about 8,500 unfilled jobs and the lowest jobless rate of any state, at about 4 percent.

But jobs don’t guarantee housing. Half of the homeless people in North Dakota are employed, Carbone said.

Housing of any type is rare in Williston, in the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch. Two city-owned trailer parks that were abandoned when the oil industry tanked 20 years ago are full again. Still, developers remain leery of the oil industry’s boom-and-bust cycle and have been slow to build new apartments or homes.

“Housing is horrible here – there’s nothing,” said Lisa Hoffman, a supervisor at the Northwest Human Services Center.

“The shelters are full and the motels are full, but everybody is coming here thinking they’ll get one of these big oil jobs,” she said. “If they do, they might end up staying in campers or with other people.”

Homeless shelters in bigger cities are filling up fast, in part because of the lack of services in smaller communities, said Dan Danielson, director of Fargo’s New Life Center, the state’s largest shelter. The number of people staying there each day has jumped from 76 in 2008 to about 100, he said.

Lured by the prospect of high pay in the oil industry, most job seekers don’t realize many open positions are “entry-level, service-type jobs,” Danielson said. But some might come anyway.

“I believe people are moving to North Dakota out of desperation,” he said. “If you’re coming to North Dakota, you’re probably escaping a pretty significant situation.”

Eddie Samuels, 47, fled Seattle’s “rough and tough” economy on a bus to Fargo in December.

“The word on the street was North Dakota has jobs and the money is supposed to be pretty good,” he said. “I got here and found ain’t nothing moving right now and I don’t have connections.”

He bought warm clothes at a thrift shop and found a spot in a shelter. Like others, he’s hoping for an oil job, but in the meantime, a pharmaceutical company is paying him to wear a patch containing a drug it’s testing.

“I think they’re trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s,” he said. “When your down on your luck, you do what you can – it’s something and it beats nothing.”

State officials discouraged others from trying their luck in such circumstances. The best thing for people seeking work in North Dakota to do is fill out applications online through Job Service North Dakota, agency spokeswoman Beth Zander said, emphasizing, “You should not come up here and look for work.”