By Emily Dalzell
In Highway Headin’ South, Dolly Parton sings about North Dakota getting the best years of her life. Undoubtedly, people from across our state would heartily nod their heads in agreement, that North Dakota truly provides a wonderful place to live.
Life for many, however, has changed dramatically within the state. As the tagline of the city of Williston so aptly states, “Welcome to Boomtown, USA”. North Dakota is certainly booming; from income from oil revenue, revenue from property sales, and in homelessness.
Since 2010, homelessness has tripled in North Dakota. This year alone, more than 10,000 people are expected to experience homelessness, by HUD’s strict definition of literally homeless. The primary cause is lack of affordable housing. According to a report released from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, people living in North Dakota need to be working between 61 to 79 hours a week at minimum wage in order to afford a one-bedroom unit in which to live. This is hardly news for most North Dakotans, as prices for apartments in Williams County are listed from anywhere between $2,000 up to $5,000 per month.
“The reality is that people come to North Dakota being told there are good jobs, but when people pull into town they realize that is only half of the picture,” says Michael Carbone, executive director of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People. “People don’t realize the incredible cost of living in North Dakota.”
One of the most difficult pieces of this hardship is the large number of children who do not have a place to call home. In North Dakota, students who experience homelessness automatically qualify for free meals in school. According to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, that number for 2015 is 28,085. While the Department of Education definition of homelessness is broader and includes families who are doubled up in unsustainable solutions, this heartbreaking reality is hard to grasp. In a state that is so prosperous, so well off – with over 1.3 billion sitting in the bank – we have children going to bed hungry and homeless.
Homelessness continues to severely impact people’s lives. People experiencing homelessness are at a much higher risk of infectious and chronic illness, and are more often victims of violence. According to the CDC, the mortality rate is four to nine times higher than those who are not homeless. Exposure to the elements, sheltering in crowded areas, and lack of access to healthcare and hygiene products are all elements that contribute to that factor.
“When we talk about preventing homelessness in the first place, we have to talk about providing affordable housing for everybody; providing accessible health care for everybody, and providing adequate income to function in our society for everybody,” states John Lozier, the executive director for the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. “We have failed on all three fronts, so far.”
The question certainly then becomes, what is the solution to this epidemic of homelessness gripping our state? One key component is partnership with the multiple companies that have come to do business in North Dakota. Homelessness is a complex problem that requires a complex solution and we need the resources and expertise of many. It is incredibly beneficial having the leaders in these companies step up and share their ideas and input with the organizations in our communities that impact change. Many organizations coming to North Dakota also realize the importance of good stewardship, and the importance of giving back to the communities that their workers call home. They know that by investing in the communities, they are investing in their workers lives, and the quality of the entire community.
The challenges that cause a person to become homeless can affect anyone. The need for support and resources for the organizations on the front lines of homelessness is paramount. And the need has never been greater. We have a wonderful opportunity for companies to provide that support; to come alongside organizations throughout our state to help ensure that everyone has a place to call home.
“With wealth comes responsibility, and with opportunity comes challenges,” says Carbone. “I believe that North Dakotans are ready to step up to those responsibilities and challenges.”
Emily Dalzell is the director of communications and development for the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People, Inc.