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Homelessness in Dickinson: Church organization bands together to help displaced men

Jeanne Hatzenbuhler and Art Carlson, both of Dickinson, fold a blanket in the laundry room of St. Joseph's Hospital and Health Center in Dickinson on Friday. The staff at St. Joe's, in a partnership with the Knights of Columbus chapter from St. Patrick's Catholic Church, have purchased the bedding to be used at the temporary homeless shelter run by Dickinson Churches United for the Homeless. Carlson, Hutzenbuhler and the rest of the laundry staff have taken on the washing of the linens, which isn't much ...

An unintended consequence of North Dakota's prosperity -- as of December the state's unemployment rate was 3.2 percent -- is homelessness.

A dozen of Dickinson's churches of all denominations have banded together to provide a warm place to sleep for up to 15 men through the end of March.

The program will enter its fourth week today and has been performing its mission with zero hiccups so far.

"Really, what they want to do, is what they want to come and sleep," said Ron Dazell, pastor at Evangelical Bible Church and the public face of Dickinson Churches United for the Homeless.

A growing problem

People are coming to North Dakota in droves to take advantage of a modern-day gold rush -- oil that is, black gold, Texas tea -- and all of the jobs, both in and out of the oil field, that come along with it.

While jobs are easy to find, a place to live -- especially a nice place at an affordable rate -- are few and far between.

People who were technically homeless -- they might have a car to sleep in or a couch to crash on -- were showing up in cities across the Oil Patch and residents began to notice.

"Last November, I come home from -- I was at Runnings -- come home and I find a guy defecating in my alley," Dickinson resident Andrew Fish told city commissioners at a recent meeting.

Being homeless in North Dakota can be dangerous. Temperatures often dip below zero, making sleeping outdoors or even in a car a life-or-death gamble.

"I've heard of three people dying from sleeping out in the cold," said Michael Carbone, executive director of North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People Inc.

The need for a permanent shelter in Dickinson has been a growing concern for city officials, but costs and regulations have been prohibitive.

The city purchased two houses in 2011 with the intent of using one as a shelter, but putting funds into the building to bring the property up to code to be used as a shelter would have been wasteful as the city, at the time, intended to eventually tear the houses down and create more parking for City Hall.

The dwellings have since been used to house city employees on a temporary basis.

A new solution

At least a dozen Dickinson churches have banded together to form DCUH. Seven of those have been determined to have the space and layout to lodge overnight guests.

The group began meeting and in December called on the public for input.

Using churches as shelters started in Bismarck and Fargo to accommodate overflow from their shelters, Dazell said. Dickinson is flipping that.

DCUH came up with a set of rules for the churches, volunteers and guests that begin with a background check.

For ease, the nature of homelessness in Dickinson and because women and children do have shelter in the form of the Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center, DCUH decided to only allow adult men to be sheltered.

A rendezvous point at Break Forth Bible Church was established as a place for guests to meet the bus. It's near the intersection of State Avenue and Villard Street and is easily accessible by foot or car.

Guests are not invited to show up at the sheltering church; they must ride the bus.

Once a guest is in for the night they are not allowed to leave; there are no smoke breaks.

The bus picks them up at Break Forth at 9 p.m. and returns them there at 6 a.m.

So far, a bus has not been needed; the guest list has been short enough that a van provides sufficient space.

The purpose of the shelter is to provide men in need a place to sleep, and there are no guaranteed meals, although the host church is welcome to prepare something at its own volition.

"The people at our church -- they tried to provide a sack lunch for the men to have for the next morning," said Gayle Homiston, St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church site coordinator.

When doing intake paperwork, potential guests are notified of the rules of the shelter.


Guests are given a cot-sized plastic-covered mattress, clean bedding and a chair to claim as theirs for the night. Special arrangements are only made in the case of illness, if a guest has a cough he might be separated, or if there are psychological reasons for a guest to be placed in a certain position in the room.

The bedding was donated by the staff of St. Joseph's Hospital and Health Center in a partnership with the Knights of Columbus chapter affiliated with St. Patrick's Catholic Church, said Dennis Cannon, executive director of mission and support services at the hospital.

"Because we are faith-based, it's extremely important that we are a part of the community and we give back to the community in multiple ways and not just through healthcare," he said.

The laundry staff, including Art Carlson and Jeanne Hatzenbuhler, hasn't found adding the blankets to be much of a burden.

"They were excited about doing that," Cannon said. "It's just part of who they are."

Shelter staff drops of the used linens and picks up fresh ones each day.

Residents near St. John's, who hosted guests in the program's second week, didn't really notice that guests were there, Pastor Lisa Lewton said.

"There was one neighbor who noticed because he was gracious enough to call me when the bus light had been left on," she said. "Our neighbors have been a positive presence."

Getting in

Those wishing to be guests with the DCUH can get enrolled at a number of religious and social organizations. The first step is filling out an intake form with an appropriate agency.

The form asks basic questions similar to that of a job application, but also asks about the guest's home life and other personal details to determine if they qualify. The guest's name and information is also sent to the Dickinson Police Department to verify the man's sex offender status and to see if there are any warrants out for his arrest. Photo identification is needed to stay.

Anyone too sick or contagious will not be allowed, nor will anyone under the obvious influence of drugs, alcohol, or appearing to be in an altered mental state, even if their paperwork cleared.

Once someone has passed the test they are allowed to stay every night as long as they don't cause trouble. They can reserve their bed with the volunteers at the church as they leave.


Eight volunteers are needed each night, two shifts of four who are paired off. Each pair sticks together throughout the night.

Volunteers attend a training session before they are put on shift. Training sessions take place Sunday before guests arrive at the host church. They are also put through a background check.

The site coordinators at each church work together to line up volunteers for each evening.

"People have been very generous with their time," Homiston said.

Volunteers perform bag checks on residents, who are allowed one bag. Weapons of any kind, even a pocket knife, are not allowed, nor are any drugs for which the guest does not have an active prescription. If these things are found the guest is immediately sent packing.

Once the guests are asleep, all the volunteers have to do is stay awake until their shifts end.

"I do know the volunteers have come -- the gal the other night -- she had brought her crocheting with her and some have brought books," Homiston said. "I think one night I heard that the volunteers played some cards."

In their training the volunteers are taught how to handle all types of unpleasant situations.

"When in doubt, the answer is 'call 911,'" Dazell said. "If they're willing to calm down, you're fine, but if you're not sure."


One of the unique aspects of the project is the way it brings together people of all different types of worship and even those with no religious affiliation.

"That's the thing that I find the most encouraging is the unity and the way that we're all working together for a common good," said Kyle Scammon, Evangelical Bible Church site coordinator. "The need to care for this particular part of our society kind of overshadows the differences that we have."

The fact that so many people of so many different denominations can come together is also inspiring to Lewton.

"The coolest thing to be has been seeing the churches collaborate and watching the volunteers from different faith communities work together and get to know each other and recognize how much we have in common," she said.

Next winter

DCUH received a temporary use permit for the seven host churches through the City Commission to run the shelter through Easter.

The organization plans to keep detailed notes and present a report to determine if this two-month trial will work throughout next winter and beyond.

"I think it's been a good experience for everybody that I've spoke with," Homiston said. "There's been zero issues as far as the men that are coming there. I think everybody has kind of enjoyed getting to know each other. It's bringing our community of churches together."

To learn more about volunteering and DCUH visit

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206