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James MacPherson, Associated Press , Published June 16 2013

Homelessness increases in oil-rich North Dakota

BISMARCK – The number of homeless people is soaring as desperate job seekers flock to North Dakota to take advantage of the oil-wealthy state’s abundant employment opportunities, the director of an advocacy group says.

Volunteers counted a record 2,069 homeless people during a “point in time” survey Jan. 23, a day in which temperatures were well below zero across much of the state, said Michael Carbone, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People.

The census that accounts for the whereabouts of homeless people on a single day is slated to be published in a report next month. The January census showed an increase of about 300 homeless people compared to a similar one-day survey done last July. Summer tallies historically have been higher than those done in winter months, where North Dakota’s dangerously cold weather typically forces homeless people to warmer climes.

The report has been done each year since 2001 to obtain grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. North Dakota has received about $26 million since then, Carbone said.

The most recent survey found that the number of “unsheltered” homeless people was 1,395, which far exceeded those discovered in the state’s 25 emergency shelters that were full to capacity, Carbone said.

“The vast majority were in their cars, some were in tents, under bridges, grain bins, haystacks, even culverts,” Carbone said. Volunteers counted 35 children younger than age 5 who spent the day “out of doors,” according to Marci Goldade, the group’s database administrator.

State Climatologist Adnan Akyuz said temperatures Jan. 23 ranged from minus 26 in Bottineau, in north-central North Dakota, to a high of 8 in Marmarth, in the southwest corner of the state.

Carbone said at least four homeless people died from exposure to cold last winter and two others died in camper fires.

Thousands of new jobs spurred largely by the boom in the western North Dakota’s Oil Patch has driven up the cost of housing, making it especially tough for low-income individuals and families, Carbone said. The influx of workers is a relatively new experience for North Dakota, a state that for decades suffered population decline.

North Dakota had more than 21,000 unfilled jobs last week and the lowest jobless rate of any state, at less than 3 percent, Job Service North Dakota data show.

Michael Ziesch, the agency’s research analyst, said 39 percent of the unfilled jobs are located in the 17 oil-producing counties in the western part of the state.

North Dakota began the decade with its highest population since 2000, according to Census Bureau figures. Data show the state’s 2012 population at about 700,000. South Dakota, with a population of 833,350, counted 537 homeless people in its Jan. 23 survey, or only about one-quarter the number in neighboring North Dakota, data shows.

Carbone said homeless people counted during the survey in North Dakota had come from nearly every U.S. state and some Canadian provinces.

Substance abuse, mental illness and medical problems also contribute to homelessness but “opportunity seekers” account for the greatest number of those without housing, Carbone said. Data shows that nearly half of the state’s homeless people are employed, he said.

About one-fourth of North Dakota’s homeless are children, Carbone said. Single white men make up the majority of the homeless population, he said.