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Homeless numbers rising in Dickinson

Many Dickinson residents will probably spend at least part of their Thanksgiving weekend curled up in a blanket in their living room, perhaps watching a movie, reading a good book or just spending time with family.

Most will also have a roof over their head, heat and food in the kitchen.

George, a man living under a concrete overpass inside Dickinson's city limits, will have a few of those things, but not the most important ones. Since the Bakken energy boom kicked into high gear a few years ago, a growing number of people in the Dickinson area have found themselves in George's position -- homeless.

Many came in search of employment, which some have found. It's not hard to find work in Dickinson, but obtaining a place to live is another story. If a person is looking for an affordable house, it's even harder.

"We've been getting one or two people referred to us per day lately," said Michelle Orton of Community Action and the Southwest Homeless Coalition. "Generally, we see single males. Many of them came here in search of employment and opportunity."

Although the city sees more people living on the streets during the warmer months, there are still people braving the elements with nothing but a tent or worse -- no shelter at all. Further complicating the issue is that meteorologists have forecast another unforgiving North Dakota winter.

Awakened from a midday nap Friday, George (not his real name) offered little insight into the circumstances that led to his homelessness.

"This certainly isn't the way I expected my life to go," said George, peeking around some cooking utensils and a makeshift bookshelf that house some Tom Clancy novels. "It's not a good situation, I'll tell you that."

George isn't the only person living under the bridge, but he declined to go into specifics. Bags of clothes and other supplies, including toiletries and pots and pans, were visible. A bow and arrow was seen hanging on a board being used as a partial wall.

"I don't know what the future is going to bring," George said. "It's getting colder and I think I'm going to head south soon."

George said the police know where he lives and that they're good to him. Sgt. Dan Brown of the Dickinson Police Department said the DPD receives calls about homeless people at times, but that there isn't much law enforcement can do.

"It's not illegal to be homeless," Brown said. "If someone is breaking the law or staying on private property, that's another matter, but, generally, there isn't anything law enforcement can do except for refer people to the proper agencies that can help them."

A Dickinson officer for more than two decades, Brown said there have always been "transients" in town because of its location along Interstate 94.

In the past two years, however, most agree there has been a significant uptick in the number of people who end up living on the street in the city.

"We're seeing more and more people coming in and putting their address down as 'homeless,'" said Ron Keller, president of the Amen Food Pantry in Dickinson. "It's funny, we have $500,000 for a new dog and cat shelter and no money available for a homeless shelter. I think that's a black eye for the community."

Brown said some of the homeless in Dickinson end up migrating to Bismarck to seek refuge at places like the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, a shelter in the capitol city 100 miles east of Dickinson. One problem with attempting to put a price tag on a potential shelter in Dickinson: It's hard to know just how many homeless people are in the Queen City.

Both Orton and Keller gave loose estimates putting the number of homeless people in Dickinson at between 50 and 100.

"It's really difficult to say how many there are," Orton said. "Many people stay in campers or sleep in their vehicles. I know of two or three people just in the past couple of weeks who said they are still sleeping in tents. Many times, people are confused why a person would come here without researching the housing situation. What we hear a lot from people is that it was worse wherever they came from."

While a good book and a warm blanket sound appealing to many of us this weekend with temperatures in the 30s or lower, they won't provide much solace for George. His "home" lacks a thermostat to turn up.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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