Slowdown and out in Williston, ND

by @willdizard April 27, 2015 8:00AM ET

Layoffs, reduced hours and smaller paychecks drive oil boomers into hard times or out of town

North Dakota
A free meal is served Sunday nights at the First Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota, March 1, 2015.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America
Oil tankers fill up outside Williston. Since fracking began in the Bakken Shale in the late 2000s, the city’s population has more than doubled.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

WILLISTON, N.D. — From an airplane at night, Williston appears an oasis of thousands of points of light on the Great Plains. Most are white or yellow, but some flicker bright orange. They are the oil drilling rig flares of the Bakken Shale formation — fires that burn night and day.

But dozens of these fires have gone dark in the last eight months.

Williston has been pummeled by plunging oil prices worldwide, which dropped from a $105 a barrel in February 2014 to $54 in February 2015. There are still high-paying jobs, but fewer of them.

For residents, the result is layoffs, reduced work schedules and smaller paychecks for everyone from oil rig workers to Walmart greeters. The slowdown, as locals call it, has pushed thousands deeper into poverty, closer to homelessness or out of the city altogether, charity workers said.

Since fracking began in the Bakken Shale around Williston in the late 2000s, the city’s population has more than doubled, to about 20,000 today, according to the Census Bureau. That figure does not include temporary and seasonal workers and others living on the city’s outskirts.

Soaring demand for housing and limited stock have pushed the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment up to $1,500 dollars, listings show.

“North Dakota does not have a [rent-control] law, so there’s really no cap the state sets,” said “Captain Josh” Stansbury, head of the Salvation Army in Williston. The Salvation Army serves as a hub for newcomers who need help.

Steep rents mean many Williston workers, even those with higher wages, live on thin margins, and a loss in hours can send them to churches and other charitable groups to make ends meet.

The Williston Village RV Resort. Winter temperatures can dip to 20 below zero, which puts the many Willistonians who live in trailers at risk of freezing.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

Cornell Valme, 42, is a truck driver who delivers freshwater to fracking rigs where it is pumped underground to release trapped oil. Three years ago, he started sleeping in his truck because there was so much work, he didn’t have time to commute. He was making good money, he said.

Now, during the slowdown, Valme eats dinner with a few truck-driving friends at the Faith United Methodist Church on Friday nights. “We help each other out with information and all that,” he said of his two friends, immigrants from Africa.

Counting the homeless is difficult anywhere, and in Williston it has become harder as the boom has matured. Stansbury said that at the beginning of the boom, people living in cars and tents were a common sight, until the city hired more police and started vigorously enforcing rules against sleeping in cars.

“As far as an exact number, I wouldn’t know where to start,” he said.

However, Stansbury said his branch of the Salvation Army is on track to break last year’s totals for gas vouchers and bus vouchers distributed. The branch gives gas vouchers to people living in their cars so they can stay warm — a matter of life or death in the wicked North Dakota winter.

In the first six months of this fiscal year, starting September 2014, Stansbury said, the Salvation Army spent $32,761 on gas vouchers, compared with $41,570 for the entire previous year. Bus vouchers, for people leaving the city, are also “on track to far exceed the last fiscal year,” he said.

The North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People estimates that 2,069 residents of the state were homeless in 2013, with 674 living in an emergency shelter and 1,395 without shelter. About 55 percent of the homeless interviewed had part-time jobs. About half were “in a car or other vehicle the night of the survey,” according to the group’s website, and 30 percent were in a tent.

It was 26 degrees below zero the night of the count.

Nighttime in downtown Williston, Feb. 28, 2015. The two establishments on the left are strip clubs.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America
A burned-out RV destroyed in a heating accident at the Williston Fox Run RV Park.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

For those who live in mobile homes, gas tanks might do the job of keeping those inside warm, but safety is an issue, said Katie Peterson, a Methodist charity worker in Williston. At one RV camp that Al Jazeera visited, the charred, hollow corpse of a trailer destroyed in a heating system accident involving its gas tank shook in the cold, whipping wind.

Hundreds of children are homeless or at risk of homelessness, even if their parents have jobs.

Deb Roel works as the homeless liaison for the Students in Transit program, a federally funded effort to help kids without permanent housing in Williston get an education. She said 228 students in the city have parents who report living in temporary situations.

“I have many families who are in campers. Probably the majority of them are sharing housing with other people. They qualify for this program if they have lost housing somewhere else or due to economic hardship or similar reasons, which in Williston is often lack of affordable housing,” she said.

While the city closely monitors and advertises the positive signs of economic development — new businesses, higher wages, better opportunity — statistics measuring those left behind aren’t available.

Building a homeless shelter to accommodate them is unlikely, according to Williston’s City Commission. “To be honest with you, it’s not going to happen in my term,” said City Commissioner Jim Klug. Improving sewers and subsidizing the construction of more apartments to deflate rental prices takes priority.

“Here’s what I tell everybody. You come to the Bakken, you come to North Dakota with some skills, we’ll find you a job,” he said. “Everybody that can be employed and better their lives, we’ll make sure we build enough homes so that the prices come down. But for people that show up and expect us to house them, we don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the time.”

North Dakota is a state where small government is the default, and lawmakers meet for just a few weeks every two years. A bill that provides a billion dollars in tax revenue from the oil boom passed in February. That money will go to roads and sewer infrastructure straining to handle the surge in population.

While local churches have mobilized to fill the gap in social services, charity workers say they are not equipped to meet the rising demand from those in need. The problem has united people from different denominations — mainly Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists.

Pastor Ben Loven of the First Lutheran Church says poverty in Williston is less visible than in many big cities.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America
Loven offers communion at the church, March 1, 2015.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

Homelessness and poverty aren’t as visible as they are in New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles, but they’re there, said Ben Loven, an associate pastor of the First Lutheran Church in Williston, where a free meal is served every Sunday night.

“Right now, when you are dealing with multimillion [dollar] development deals and humongous infrastructure needs, building a homeless shelter is not high on the list,” he said.

Arriving by car, bus, train or plane, people sometimes show up in Williston with their last dollars, charity workers say, expecting to find work and better pay.

Lynea Geinert, a social worker with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, went to Williston from Minneapolis on a mission to help its most vulnerable.

“I think you need a transitional place for people when they arrive and they’re working on getting a job. You need that support,” she said. “But you also need homes for people who are working. You need to have affordable homes.”

Establishing a homeless shelter in Williston isn’t just a matter of government resources. Some locals oppose it.

In 2013 one Williston church, Concordia Lutheran, opened its doors to the homeless overnight, allowing people to sleep on the floor and on pews. But neighbors — and some church members — didn’t like the tents and unkempt people, potentially with criminal backgrounds, hanging around their homes. Amid outcry, the city forced the church to close its overnight shelter because it lacked fire sprinklers and permits for round-the-clock human occupancy.

During a brutal cold snap in 2013, First Lutheran kept its doors open several nights until temperatures climbed back up. The church called it a prayer vigil, not a homeless shelter.

Steve Cook, a father of four who moved to Williston last year, preaches in the basement of the Faith United Methodist Church before a free meal is served.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America
Partners Rick Crouse, 55, and April Cantrell, 59, have lived in their camper at the Buffalo Trails Campground in Williston for four years. Cantrell works at the Salvation Army thrift shop, where desperate new arrivals frequently seek help.
Andy Richter for Al Jazeera America

The Salvation Army, two blocks from Williston’s train station, serves as a processing center for people who show up in the city without a clear plan. They are issued blue cards that let them access other services — food, clothing and help finding a job — from local churches.

April Cantrell, 59, lives with her partner of 26 years in a small trailer at an RV park outside Williston and works at the Salvation Army thrift store in town. She said that new arrivals who show up on weekends, when the Salvation Army center is closed, often seek her help.

“I get calls almost every weekend — ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ‘I don’t have anything.’ ‘I need a place to stay,’” she said.

Casey Robertson, 25, works at the Williston Fox Run RV Park, which charges trailers $800 a month. She said the owners recently lowered the security deposit from a full month’s rent to $500.

“The move outs we’ve had, nine times out of 10, it is a layoff or a pay cut or a decrease in work hours,” she said of her recent departures. “It goes right along with the drop in oil prices you’re seeing out here. I think there’s a lot of people that are nervous.”

That includes herself. Even though she still has a job, Robertson plans to leave Williston for Oregon, where her husband is from.

According to Ron Wright, a chiropractor who was serving meals on a Sunday at First Lutheran, Williston has been through this kind of boom and bust cycle before. Born in nearby Flasher, he arrived in Williston in 1981, he said, during the city’s last oil boom, when tents and makeshift shelters popped up across the region.

“Interestingly enough, in 1981 there were also 200 drilling rigs here,” he said. At that time, they didn’t do any of the horizontal drilling involved in hydraulic fracturing.

“It was busy, just like it has been in the last four or five years, but when oil went down in price, there were times in the middle to later ’80s when there was no drilling rigs drilling,” he said.

Wright, having seen the last boom and bust, said he doesn’t see this one fizzling like the oil rush in the 1980s. Then, it was wildcatting, or drilling down for oil with only a basic guess where the oil is.

As the diners trickled out of the church with full stomachs and uncertain futures, he said that the amount of money big oil companies have sunk into Williston wells means they’ll stick around.

“The biggest difference between ’81 and now is that companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure here,” he said.