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Oil boom's marginal housing tough on youth

Seven-year-old Steven Jarvis plays video games on his parents' bed in his family's camper. Jarvis, who lives in an RV park near Williston, is one of a growing number of kids in Williston area school districts who are classified as homeless students.

WILLISTON -- School kids here had spring break last week, but for some, staying home isn't much of a vacation.

A growing number of students are crowded in campers with their families, living in hotel rooms or doubling up with another family.

Williston Public Schools has 115 students who fall into one of those categories, which meets the criteria for being considered homeless.

Betsy Kelly, who coordinates services for homeless students in the district, said half of those students live in campers, many without running water or electricity.

Some families have lived in their cars, but they left the area when the weather started getting cold, Kelly said.

Their families moved to North Dakota's Oil Patch for work, but they can't find affordable housing and they struggle to keep up with expenses.

"They've been able to find employment, but they never had a clue that finding housing would be like this," Kelly said.

New Public School District 8, which is a K-8 district serving rural Williston, has 34 homeless students out of a total of 204 enrolled. That's about 15 percent of the school population.

Superintendent Greg McNary said that number increased about 50 percent since the previous year. He expects to see a spike next year, and then it may start to decline as the housing market catches up.

Kelly said one of the biggest challenges for these students is getting a good night's sleep. Space in RV parks is scarce, so some families have to park in noisy truck yards, Kelly said.

"How do you do well on a test when you've gotten two hours of sleep the night before?" Kelly said. "And you don't have warm clothing, and you don't have good support systems. It's difficult for these children, it's very difficult."

Wesley and Michelle have now spent two winters living with their two kids in a 34-foot camper outside of Williston.

"Originally we bought it to go camping every other weekend," said Wesley, a tool pusher who relocated with his family from Utah. "That changed."

They know they are more comfortable than many families because they have a larger, newer model RV and the company Wesley works for provides a place for them to park with access to sewer and water hookups.

But it's tough for their daughter, Sandrashai, 8, and son, Gauge, 7, to share a room. And it's been hard for them to make friends their age because they live several miles out of town.

"I really don't like it because there's not much to do," Sandrashai said of living in the camper.

For 7-year-old Steven Jarvis, there's little to do in the RV he shares with his parents other than play video games. He misses having his own room. His family recently moved from Washington.

"I think he's pretty flexible when it comes to living here in the trailer," said his mother, Angelia Jarvis. "He just misses home. And the fact that we don't really have a lot of privacy."

But the family is pleased with the attention Steven is getting at his school, Stony Creek.

"We really like the school. They've been really good with Steven," said his father, Jayson Jarvis. "I think he's done better here than he has back home."

McNary, the superintendent of that district, said staff members go out of their way to nurture students who live in campers.

Both the rural and city school districts help families out with school supplies and backpacks. The local recreation center has donated free passes so kids can get exercise and have access to showers.

Williston Public Schools also has provided snack packs and warm clothing for kids. Donations from the community have helped the district provide hygiene kits, laundry soap and quarters for doing laundry.

"If you have dirty clothes, if you don't have hygiene, if you aren't taking baths regularly, your life's going to be miserable," Kelly said.

Most of the kids living in campers are elementary students because the oil field tends to attract younger families.

Some of the teenagers living in campers are showing up at the Northwest Youth Assessment Center in Williston after getting into arguments with their parents, said Marsha Hughes, center administrator. If a fight escalates and law enforcement is called, the assessment center is a place for youth to go until things cool off.

"It's only a matter of time when you're living in a confined space before tempers rise," Hughes said.

Daylrymple is a reporter stationed in the Oil Patch for Forum Communications Co.