Ahmed Farhadi was a dance instructor at a school in Los Angeles when the recession bore down and led to the elimination of his position. Next, he was a welding inspector in Texas, but that job eventually went away too. Left with few options, the Iranian immigrant packed his belongings in his car and headed to North Dakota.
He heard there were jobs here. And, on that score, he was right. But he didn’t anticipate what would happen when he arrived.
“I come to North Dakota and I see signs everywhere – now hiring, now hiring, now hiring,” Farhadi said. “But I am always suspicious and think to myself there must be something behind that. So, yeah, you have jobs, but there’s nowhere to stay.”
Farhadi, who gave himself the best American name he could think of – Pete Rock – slept in his car for about a week while working for an industrial services company in Bismarck until he learned about the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, the state’s only homeless shelter west of the Red River Valley.
Now, he’s one of dozens of men who gather every afternoon in the parking lot of the small downtown building, hoping to get one of the “drop-in” rooms when the facility opens at 10 p.m. Right now, the shelter has enough space for 20 drop-ins and about 50 temporary residents. Even if there were twice as many spaces, the facility would still have to turn people away.
Not long ago, North Dakota was the last place homeless people and transient workers wanted to be. Job offers were scarce for people without permanent addresses, and the weather is notoriously unbearable for most of the year.
But the oil boom has made employers desperate for workers while the rest of the nation suffers under an excruciatingly slow economic recovery. And, thanks to the national media, the entire U.S. is under the impression that North Dakota is a welcoming haven for the downtrodden.
Years ago, about 80 percent of the people who received services at the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House were North Dakota residents. During the past 18 months, that has changed dramatically; 85 percent of the services are used by out-of-state people who have been led to North Dakota in search of jobs.
The truth is that North Dakota just wasn’t prepared to become home to so many job-seekers. Even those who come here with a little money in their pockets are unable to afford hotel rooms or apartments, which have become extremely expensive and scarce.
Jaclyn Bugbee, executive director of the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, said the problem is going to “snowball” in the next few years.
“As North Dakota continues to evolve and people see income and wealth here, we’re going to have a lot more homeless people coming through,” she said. “It’s hard for North Dakotans to look outside their comfort zones and see all the need. The community has been very generous, but we just aren’t ready for what’s ahead.”
***Expansion and Money***
The Ruth Meiers Hospitality House operates a series of housing units across Bismarck, including an emergency shelter, a family shelter and apartments that serve as transitional housing for those who advance through a program designed to get them back into the permanent workforce.
Since last year, the entire system has been over-capacity.
“It’s hard to grasp,” Bugbee said. “We’re seeing huge growth compared to how many were here a year ago.”
The shelter’s coordinators are planning to expand the family emergency shelter, which houses women and their children. When complete, the facility will go from 15 beds to 30 beds, with an additional level for single fathers. But that won’t be nearly enough to handle the growing demand.
Bugbee hopes to add 50 apartment units to the transitional housing program during the next three to five years. She also expects to expand the drop-in facility to provide additional emergency space for unexpected guests.
As always, though, money is tight. The shelter’s budget last year was about $700,000. About 70 percent of the money comes from donations by churches and individuals, while the other 30 percent comes from grants administered by the government and nonprofit organizations such as the United Way Foundation.
Sometimes, Bugbee said, people who stayed at the shelter in the past send donations after getting back on their feet.
“We need all the help we can get to stay ahead of this and continue the North Dakota way of compassionate giving,” she said.
Bugbee hopes the state will provide more assistance in the coming years. State funding so far is provided through emergency services grants, but the amount hasn’t increased for several years. She wants to see a program where residents can receive tax credits for donating to the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People, which includes three homeless shelters in Fargo, two in Grand Forks, the Ruth Meiers House and several other organizations across the state.
“The state needs to step it up a lot more,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, from Dickinson, was the sponsor of the legislation that established the grant program for homeless shelters several years ago. He said it’s possible that the Legislature would provide additional grant money to communities with growing homeless populations, although a permanent line item in the state budget is probably out of the question.
“The big thing is we want to keep our communities safe and make sure people have an opportunity to get back to their lives and get going,” he said. “It’s a local issue, but we will try to assist any way we can from a state level.”
The difficulty, from a political standpoint, is that not everyone sees the homeless problem from the same perspective, Wardner said.
“Not everybody sees it the way I do,” he said. “They see it as someone looking for a handout. And some may be looking for a handout. But many are not. They just need a little boost to help them get going.”
Wardner said community organizations such as churches and even the Chamber of Commerce should look for new ways to help.
“If you can get all the churches involved, you’ll have a force that is tough to reckon with. Sometimes we don’t tap in to that resource. Some churches are looking for things to do,” he said. “And the chambers of commerce, this should be on their radar screens. It’s not just city government or state government, it’s something they should be looking at. It all goes back to quality of life.”
***Illusions and Misconceptions***
The Ruth Meiers Hospitality House opened in spring of 1987. Its purpose was to relieve stress on chaplains and other local organizations that were weighed down after years of supporting the homeless in Bismarck. The mission was simple at first: provide food and housing for people who had none.
But the mission has changed dramatically over the years. Instead of handouts, the organization establishes case plans for each resident to help them achieve a series of goals that lead to financial independence.
People who stay at the clinic must be sober and drug-free. If they want to apply for temporary residency, they must meet regularly with a case manager to identify job opportunities. Often, the case manager is able to help them get proper identification, a phone number and an address to use on job applications.
Once they get a job, they must pay $50 per week to stay at one of the temporary housing units. In many cases, they are allowed to stay for a maximum of 30 days.
Bob Gruenberg, who is part of the New Beginnings program, has lived on-site at the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House for three years. But he’s more than just a resident; he’s also the first point-of-contact for new arrivals at the shelter. It’s his job to explain the policies, help fill out the necessary paperwork, answer phones and work in the kitchen.
He said many of the people he meets should be able to find jobs if they can clear up some of the problems that come with being homeless.
“They should be able to find a job, but they need a phone, a permanent address, and references to put on the job application,” he said. “We have educated men here, some with college educations or trade backgrounds.”
Bugbee said many people in the community assume incorrectly that homeless people are the ones seen panhandling at the interstate exits.
“Those people you see on the corners panhandling – I’ve never seen them at the shelter, and I don’t believe they are homeless,” she said. “They’re making $700 a day, and you’re not helping them by giving them $5 or $20.
“My guys are working at McDonald’s or as bank tellers or electricians or pipefitters. Whatever happened to them put their lives in a downward spiral, but I’ve got guys with master’s degrees staying here.”
Bugbee said many of the people who stay at the shelter are transitioning out fairly quickly, which is exactly what the program is meant to do.
“This isn’t a free-for-all,” she said. “Ruth Meiers isn’t just a homeless shelter. It’s an organization that provides services to end homelessness. We get them IDs, put clothing on their backs, get them jobs, get them addiction treatment – and we do it all in 90 days. The only limitation is that we don’t have enough capacity.”
-Freelance writer Charles Gitter contributed to this story.