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'No place to camp': Where do Dickinson's homeless go when they're evicted from 'home'?

Anthony Gonzales gazes out at the Heart River Tuesday from the camp where he and another man have been living underneath a bridge in Dickinson. Gonzales came to North Dakota from California looking for work, but hasn't been able to find steady employment or housing.1 / 2
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Like many others in recent months, Anthony Gonzales came to western North Dakota looking for work.

With media outlets picking up on North Dakota's Bakken oil play over the course of the past couple of years, the area's national reputation as an employment hotbed has spread like wildfire. With his job prospects going nowhere after he was laid off in Los Angeles, Gonzales, 51, decided to take a chance.

The self-described former correctional officer and construction contractor hopped on a bus and made his way to Williston for a job that he said "fell through."

That was in June. Fast forward to the present and Gonzales finds himself living under a bridge in Dickinson with a fellow homeless man -- also from California -- who came to North Dakota for work.

"I went to Williston thinking I had a job and housing lined up," Gonzales said. "When I got there, I found out the job was no longer available. I had nowhere to go at that point. There's no place to even camp out in Williston -- it's chaos up there. I met another guy in the same situation and we packed up and came here."

Gonzales said he's worked some odd jobs since coming to Dickinson, but hasn't found anything steady.

"It's tough to get a job when you don't have an address or a phone," Gonzales said. "I lost my phone in Williston, but I'll hopefully be getting a new one soon. We have enough food for about two months probably and I have a little bit of money, but it's going fast."

Besides the bitter cold of winter closing in fast, Gonzales and his friend have another problem: Gonzales said he came home Monday to a note written on Dickinson Police Department letterhead instructing the two to leave the premises of their makeshift camp by next week or risk trespassing charges.

"It's certainly not illegal to be homeless in the city of Dickinson, but we're not going to let people live under a bridge," DPD Capt. Dave Wilkie said. "It's a safety issue more than anything else. It's a safety issue for them and it's a safety issue for people using the bridge."

It's unknown how many people in Dickinson are homeless. Part of the reason is because the number is ever-changing, though numbers typically drop dramatically during the winter months, Southwest Homeless Coalition Chairman Joe Wanner said.

"It's a fluid situation and it's just difficult to get a handle on how many people here are homeless," Wanner said. "The weather will certainly force some people out. We can sometimes put people up for a short time, but we can't house them for very long."

With homeless shelters in Bismarck and Fargo, Wilkie said homeless individuals are often encouraged to head east, although space and resources are often limited. The DPD also offers one-time stipends for gas or food money for the homeless.

"With the high cost of living in Dickinson, you can come here looking for work with some money saved up and that money can disappear quickly," Wilkie said. "Even if you come here with $1,200 in your pocket, if you're spending $150 per night at a hotel, that goes quick. I would highly encourage people to do research on the housing market and all the other factors before just coming here from other parts of the country."

Gonzales said he doesn't drink or do drugs and he's ready to work, but he knows his time and resources are running out.

"It's getting colder and we know that," Gonzales said. "Can we stay through the winter? I don't know. I'd love to find a job and be able to get a place, but the housing is tight here. I know a guy who's living in a tent down by (Patterson) Lake who has two jobs and he still can't afford an apartment."

Wanner said the SWHC is in the process of getting tax-exempt status as a nonprofit charitable organization, which would likely help funding. With limited dollars coming in and an air-tight real estate market, dreams of a potential homeless shelter in Dickinson are probably just that -- dreams. In fact, Wanner said the SWHC has received only about $1,000 in private donations so far this year.

"With our nonprofit status, we would potentially be able to do more, but our funding is still going to be scarce," Wanner said. "It's an uphill battle. We do know, though, that homelessness in Dickinson is a growing problem."

With many people and businesses making money from the Bakken play in recent years, there are a lot of success stories in western North Dakota. Gonzales and his friend represent an uglier side of the boom -- a side that is not always easy to acknowledge.

"We certainly don't want any problems with the people or the police here," Gonzales said. "I'm here to work -- nobody comes to North Dakota to be homeless. The people (in Dickinson) are very nice. I like it here. I hope I find something and that I'm able to stay."

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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