BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The number of homeless people in North Dakota increased in the past year with people in search of work accounting for the greatest number of those without housing in the state where a once-booming oil economy is slowly rebounding, advocates say.
"A lot of these guys still come here for jobs," said Jeannie Messall, director of the Missouri Valley Coalition for Homeless People. "The jobs are here but they can't afford to live here. They find out that $12 an hour doesn't quite cut it and they don't have the funding to go back to where they were from."
Volunteers counted 331 "unsheltered" homeless people during a "point in time" survey on Jan. 26, said April Fairfield, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People. That's up from 216 unsheltered homeless January 2016 but down from a record 1,395 in 2013, when North Dakota was experiencing an explosion of oil activity in the western part of the state.
The recent rise in homelessness comes at a time when state funding to combat the problem was slashed as legislators struggled to adopt a balanced budget due to depressed oil and crop prices.
The Legislature included $2 million for homeless programs in its 2013-15 budget, but reduced the funding by $500,000 in the two years that followed. Lawmakers included just $300,000 for the two-year budget cycle that begins July 1, said Adele Sigl, a grant manager for the state Commerce Department, which administers the programs.
The annual census, done by about 80 volunteers across the state, only accounts for the whereabouts of homeless people on a single day. 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 more than $30 million since then for housing programs, Fairfield said.
Most of the homelessness in North Dakota can be attributed to unaffordable housing for people with low to no income, while substance abuse, mental illness and medical problems are secondary causes of homelessness, advocates say.
"There is a cure for homelessness, and that's affordable housing," Fairfield said.
Single, white men make up the majority of the homeless population in North Dakota, which had more than 15,000 unfilled jobs at the end of last month and a jobless rate of less than 3 percent, Job Service North Dakota data show.
"A lot of single adults end up living on the streets until they find a job," said Lynea Geinert, executive director of Community Connections, a Williston-based nonprofit that serves as a link between the needy and area churches.
Volunteers in the Williston area and in the heart of North Dakota's oil-producing region counted 41 homeless adults and three children during the one-day survey done in January, when temperatures were well below zero, she said.