BISMARCK, North Dakota — The number of homeless people in oil-rich North Dakota increased slightly in the past year but it's down dramatically from the record set in 2013, according to a report released Wednesday.
Volunteers counted 1,305 homeless people during a "point in time" survey on Jan. 28, according to the report issued by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People. That's up from 1,258 homeless people counted on a single day in January 2014 but down from a record 2,069 homeless people in 2013.
Michael Carbone, the group's executive director, attributed the decrease since 2013 to more affordable housing options, improving economies in other states and "people figuring out North Dakota isn't necessarily the place to come for turning your life around."
The census, done by about 70 volunteers across the state, only accounts for the whereabouts of homeless people on a single day. Carbone said about 10,000 people are expected to experience homelessness this year, more than double the number just a few years ago.
The report has been done each year since 2001 to obtain grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. North Dakota has received about $30 million since then, with most of the funding used to provide housing for people with disabilities who "otherwise would be homeless," Carbone said.
The most recent survey found that the number of "unsheltered" homeless people was 486, about half of whom were employed and living in vehicles and tents in western North Dakota's oil patch, Carbone said.
Across the state, people were found living in storage units, under bridges and fish houses.
Most of the "sheltered" homeless were in the state's biggest cities outside of the oil patch, where almost all of the state's two-dozen or so shelters are located.
Jaclyn Hall, executive director of the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House in Bismarck, said the nonprofit shelter provided help to about 2,500 people last year. The shelter has doubled its capacity to 210 beds in the past three years and is just now meeting demand "but barely."
Hall said the shelter is seeing more people come in from western North Dakota's oil-producing region with the drop in oil prices.
"With the downturn of oil, sometimes they don't have a job any longer," she said. "And jobs that provided them housing — they don't have that housing anymore."
Hall said the shelter also is seeing a rise in homeless veterans, the elderly and others on fixed incomes. People who have criminal pasts also are on the rise, she said.
Substance abuse, mental illness and medical problems also contribute to homelessness but people in search of work account for the greatest number of those without housing, Carbone said. Data shows that nearly half of the state's homeless people are employed, he said.
About one-fourth of North Dakota's homeless historically are under the age of 18, Carbone said. Single, white men make up the majority of the homeless population, he said.
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