WILLISTON, N.D. – A church here that has been temporarily housing job-seekers while they get on their feet is being forced to end its lodging program this week, leaving about 30 men with nowhere to sleep.
Concordia Lutheran Church would need to remodel its building to add fire-protection sprinklers, showers for residents and other updates to meet building and fire codes, according to Williston city officials.
In a letter dated Aug. 12, city planning staff gave Concordia 30 days to discontinue the “overnighters” program until the facility can be brought up to code.
The Rev. Jay Reinke said the church doesn’t have the money to hire an architect and fulfill the city’s requirements. Friday will be the last night people can stay overnight at the church, said Reinke, adding that he is disappointed and saddened by the city’s actions.
“We do need them in our workforce,” Reinke said of the men staying there. “Why not enable that process and facilitate that?”
Since May 2011, the Missouri Synod Lutheran church has helped new arrivals to Williston who come seeking oil boom jobs but are unprepared for the city’s housing shortage, expensive hotel rates and lack of shelter facilities. It became well known through word-of-mouth. Reinke estimates at least 1,000 people have stayed at the church.
The job-seekers – usually men – sleep on the floor of the church for a few nights or up to one or two months while they find work and housing.
Bret Schoening, 28, arrived in Williston on the train from Ohio a week ago to search for a job after the car he had used to operate a mobile auto detail business died. His options were to work for $9 an hour in Ohio or use the little savings he had to find a higher paying oil job in North Dakota.
“We just want to come here and make a better life for ourselves and our children,” said Schoening, who spent hundreds of dollars on hotels before going to Concordia this week. “We just want to be honest and work hard and pursue the American dream.”
Reinke said as word is getting out that the church program is ending, he’s heard from people who say they couldn’t have become established in town without the church’s help.
“Saying goodbye represents a very sad end to what has been a remarkable opportunity to meet, to know, to love and to serve people from around the nation and around the world,” Reinke said.
Not universal support
Although Concordia’s leadership has voted to continue the overnight program, not all members of the congregation have supported it, and some neighbors have expressed concerns.
The Planning and Zoning Department got involved last March after church elders contacted the department with questions about whether the overnight lodging is in compliance with city code, according to a letter written by Kent Jarcik, the department’s director.
An inspection by city planning, building and fire officials determined that allowing people to sleep in the church overnight is not permitted under zoning ordinances.
“The planning department would support a use as long as it meets code,” Jarcik said in an interview this week.
A letter from staff planner Rachel Ressler outline the upgrades needed, including being handicap accessible, have a designated sleeping room and showers and bathroom facilities to accommodate the number of people staying there.
In addition, the letter states that the church would need to provide overnight supervision and adequate resources for job searching and counseling.
“You’re raising the bar so high that no churches can help,” Reinke said.
Pulled from agenda
Concordia applied for a special use permit to continue operating the program and was on the August agenda of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Jarcik recommended that the item be pulled from the agenda because the application did not include an architect’s plan to bring it up to code and was determined to be incomplete.
“Once it’s taken off the agenda, it was not able to be discussed,” said Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Glenn Boyeff this week.
Mayor Ward Koeser said if Planning and Zoning would have rejected the application, it could have come to the City Commission for an appeal.
“Since it never got dealt with by them, it didn’t come to the City Commission for an appeal,” Koeser said. “That put a stop to the process”
Koeser, whose business is across the street from the church, said he commends Concordia for trying to find a temporary solution.
“I have tremendous appreciation for what Pastor Reinke is trying to do. As a neighbor, they’re not causing us any problems. I personally supported what they were trying to accomplish,” Koeser said. “Obviously I’m part of a team and the team at this point has concerns with people staying in a place at night.”
Williston Police Chief Jim Lokken also has expressed support for the program.
Some neighboring residents wrote letters to the city opposing the church’s application, citing concerns about safety of families and children.
Reinke said he has tried to respond to concerns from neighbors and the city, including limiting the number of people to 29 or less and prohibiting people from sleeping in vehicles in the parking lot.
Unsure where to go
The men staying at the church this week said they’re unsure what they’ll do on Saturday. Some said they’ll sleep in their vehicles, another said he’ll “squat” somewhere until he can return home to get his vehicle.
“There’s just no help for people like us,” said Jon Kenworthy from Chicago.
Francisco Guadarama Jr. of Chihuahua, Mexico, said he’ll keep looking for a job with housing for another month and then may go to Phoenix or New Mexico, where it is warmer and cheaper to live.
“We just need a place where people can sleep,” Reinke said.