WILLISTON, N.D. – Salvation Army Captains Joshua and Rhegan Stansbury were vocal about their desire to someday return to their home state of North Dakota.
They got their wish with a transfer to Williston about a year-and-a-half ago, but the city in the heart of an oil boom is not quite the North Dakota they remembered.
“It’s not like any other Salvation Army appointment,” said Joshua, a Grand Forks native.
Although the Williston area has one of the highest per capita income levels in the country, the high cost of living means even people with good-paying jobs may struggle to make ends meet, Joshua said.
In addition, new people continue to arrive in Williston every day from around the country looking for work, often without a plan for housing or much cash in their pockets.
The Salvation Army, across the street from the bus stop and less than a block from the Amtrak station, is often one of the first stops for job-seekers. Many drop their bags down and ask for a room, but the Salvation Army is not equipped to be a homeless shelter and there is no shelter facility in Williston.
Rhegan, a Minot native, said one of the hardest aspects of their job is turning away people who are homeless.
“Not being able to have some place for those people is difficult,” Rhegan said. “We wish we could do more.”
The Williston Salvation Army doesn’t provide much rental assistance anymore because with a maximum allotment of $150, it wouldn’t make a dent toward typical rent prices of $1,000 and $2,000 a month, Joshua said.
One of the major services available is assistance paying for gas or propane for people who live in campers or their vehicles.
“We just want to keep them warm,” Joshua said.
Sometimes the best way the Salvation Army can help is to provide assistance toward a train ticket or bus ticket home.
“Some people get up here and they realize they can’t cut it,” Joshua said.
Demand for assistance has steadily increased, along with the community’s booming population.
The Williston Salvation Army spent just over $40,000 in fiscal year 2010 on social services, which pays for food baskets, gas, rental assistance, utilities, vouchers to shower at the community center and other types of assistance.
In 2011, that more than doubled to $90,000 for the fiscal year. For fiscal year 2012 that ended Sept. 30, the total spent more than doubled again to top $196,000.
This Christmas, the Williston Salvation Army has a fundraising goal of $250,000.
“That money goes out as quickly as it comes in,” Joshua said.
Support for a toy drive has been strong and will ensure than 250 area kids have gifts under the tree, Rhegan said.
“Maybe Dad has a good job, but the cost of living is so high they need extra help at Christmas,” Rhegan said.
Joshua, 29, and Rhegan, 30, are the youngest captains to lead the Williston Salvation Army, but both grew up with families active with the Salvation Army and have been volunteering since they were kids. They served for four years as captains in Beatrice, Neb., before being transferred to Williston.
The couple now deals with some challenges that may be typical for an inner city ministry, but new for small town North Dakota.
The facility is within two blocks of eight bars, including two strip clubs that are immediately adjacent and sometimes use the Salvation Army’s parking lot. Joshua said he’s had to pick up beer bottles and clean vomit off the building before Sunday morning worship. He’s also found blood stains and bullet casings outside.
The couple takes extra safety precautions when hosting youth programs and they count money from the red kettles at a different location.
Despite some of the challenges, the couple sees big opportunities for the Williston ministry, Joshua said.
One change the couple did implement was to turn a room in the facility into a computer center where people can work on resumes, research jobs, keep in touch with family or get out of the cold.
One of their dreams is to upgrade the facility – which would take an estimated $3.3 million just to bring it up to code – and turn the upstairs into a Christian night club or coffee house.
It would serve as an alternative to the eight bars and “be a light in this dark neighborhood,” Joshua said.
Another dream is to be able to establish a homeless shelter, but it would take a significant donation to make that possible, Joshua said.
In the meantime, the couple focuses on fulfilling the Salvation Army’s mission: Doing the most good.
“However, the need is so great here that we can’t meet everyone’s needs,” Joshua said.
For more information, visit http://salvationarmynorth.org/community/williston/