Affordable housing is one of the most pressing issues in Western North Dakota. The influx of people arriving in Western North Dakota in search of jobs in the oil fields created an unprecedented demand on service providers. Williston, a community at the center of this rapid growth, experienced extraordinary burdens on services. In response, six churches in Williston, together with Community Action Partnership, Job Service ND, Veterans Administration, ND Veterans Department and the Williston Basin Resource Coalition, will collaborate on an effort to better understand and respond to this issue in their community and surrounding rural areas. Together, they will collect data about the homeless population in the area, present findings to community stakeholders, develop a plan to address the issue and test some of their ideas.
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
Networking with other agencies in the community served to help with the collection of information regarding the number of people living homeless in our community. By building partnerships with agencies such as the Family Crisis Shelter, Head Start, the Williston School District #1, Community Action Partnership, Salvation Army, Williams County Social Services, Job Service ND and others we were able to get a more accurate count on the number of people living homeless. The networking also helped us to gain a better understanding of what each agency provides so we can serve those in need in the best way possible. It also gave us a conduit through which our network can grow. We continue to add agencies and churches that help us to look at ways to provide wholistic care that helps people work toward self-sufficiency.
We organized six dinners, four in Williston and two out-state, where community members were invited to come learn about the issue of homelessness. We also gave our presentation to four groups including the Williston Resource Group, Williston Ministerial, the Board of Directors of a non-profit agency and a small group of concerned clergy, individuals and one City Councilman.
Those attending the dinners expressed great concern regarding the extent of the issue and a feeling that it is overwhelming and unsolvable. When asked for ideas we made it clear that all ideas were welcome no matter how small, large or silly it may seem. There were two ideas that came from every meeting including those with the ministerial. The first was that a shelter or temporary housing was needed. The second idea came from the question, “We have great homecooked free community meals provided on the weekends but what do people without a home do during the week for a meal?” From that question came the idea of providing a simple sack lunch of a sandwich, fruit, treat and chips.
Key lessons learned:
One key lesson learned is to have deeper, individual conversations with people we serve. We invited people we serve to attend dinners however it was difficult for them to feel like they could contribute. Carefully crafted conversations with individuals we serve may have helped to create a space in which people may feel more comfortable giving their ideas. Hearing peoples’ stories would also help dispel misconceptions of people living homeless in the community.
Another lesson is every small community has their own culture which influences how receptive they are to holding difficult conversations. We attempted to hold a Point in Time Count and to set up dinners in Watford City 45 miles south of Williston but met with resistance because they are smaller but growing quickly. We spoke with clergy as well as community leaders who felt the people in need are having their needs met and they don’t need to go any further.
There is a divide in the community between those that have lived in Williston for generations and those that have come to make Williston their home since 2008. The elected leadership of Williston, that had been invited to conversations three times, are people that come from families that have lived here for generations. It is difficult to get the “newcomers” out to vote in local elections thus the leadership is reelected with the promise of “keeping the small-town feel of Williston.” It is difficult to get the leadership to the table for discussions because they see homelessness as an urban issue and those that are living homeless here now are transient thus no care is needed.
There was a movie called “The Overnighters” that depicted the story of one pastor that felt compassion for those living homeless and opened the doors of the church daily to be used as a place to seek shelter. Unfortunately, it was done without permission of the congregation, licensure, inspections or conversations with neighbors. It created a sense of fear for any kind of shelter in the community which we have not yet been able to navigate through.
Reflections on the community innovation process:
The most important work we did is that we were able to increase the collective understanding of the issue of people living homeless in our community. More members of the community are aware and will ask questions. We continue to get the information out to the community through media, word of mouth and presentations. However, people feel overwhelmed by the numbers and have a difficult time thinking of solutions. The fear of a “flop-house” as they call it remains strong in the community.
Progress toward an innovation:
We were able to achieve a small innovation for the community. We applied for and received a grant to begin a program where anyone can come to our office to receive a simple sack lunch. The sack lunch consists of a sandwich, fruit, chips and maybe a sweet treat. Since September 17, 2018 we have given out more than 2,300 sack lunches to people expressing a need. We continue to openly talk about the issue in the community and give updates. We have formed a small group that is very concerned but needs additional members from a cross-section of the community to formulate and carry out a breakthrough.
What it will take to reach an innovation?:
We were unable to book presentations at larger community groups like the Williston Women’s Network, Chamber of Commerce or the Downtowners Association. Presentations to these groups would help to gain the support of the city leadership. Also, if we could work with the Police and Sherriff Departments to help us better understand the costs to the city when First Responders are called to respond to incidents that involve people living homeless as well as the cost of unpaid emergency room visits. We feel this may help our city leaders understand the importance of working on a solution.
Step 1: Form a Williston Coalition for People Living Homeless that would include city leadership, business leaders, health care providers, church leaders, community members and those we serve. This cross section of people could generate innovative solutions that may work for most of the community and may even eventually see as an asset to the community.
Step 2: Continue to inform the community through media, presentations and conversations on the growing need for solutions. The number of people visiting the offices of Community Connections offices saying they are living on the streets or in their vehicles rose 269% from 2017 to 2018. Children under school age that came to our offices with their parents or guardians in 2018 was 43. We had not had any children prior to 2018. The School District #1 reported they had more than 400 students that qualified under the McKinney Vento Act when school began in the fall of 2018. By February 2019 the number was down to 265 because of the work of their McKinney Vento Act worker. The first quarter of FY2019 indicates the number of people living homeless continues to rise.
If you could do it all over again...:
Collect more stories from people living homeless. With their permission, use people’s stories to illustrate the need for innovative solutions and to help the rest of the community gain a better understanding of who is affected and that they have something to contribute to our town. The stories could be told in person or be recorded.
One last thought:
It is important to note we have found some people feel that all we do is talk about the issue and don’t come up with solutions or do anything about it. There is a small group of people that want to be part of creating an innovative solution but feel overwhelmed by the size of the issue. We need to find support for forming a coalition and bring more people to the table for solution focused discussions.