WILLISTON, N.D. – City commissioners here took the first step this week to allow churches to serve as emergency homeless shelters.
Temperatures will be diving below zero next week, but it will be at least another month before shelter is available for people who arrive in the boomtown unprepared for the housing shortage.
Commissioners unanimously adopted the first reading of an ordinance that establishes guidelines for churches or other organizations to apply for permits to provide temporary shelter during the winter.
Williston pastors who attended Thursday night’s meeting applauded the city leaders’ decision.
“This is a huge issue in our town,” said the Rev. Muriel Lippert of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. “All of us are afraid that we’re going to have to do a funeral for someone who froze to death.”
Williston does not have a homeless shelter and the city’s zoning ordinances do not allow for temporary homeless shelters.
Planning and Zoning Director Kent Jarcik has been working with a Williston ministerial group that wants to begin a shelter program they call Operation Heat. The new ordinance, which is patterned after a Dickinson program, would set the groundwork for the churches to apply for a permit, Jarcik said.
Dickinson Churches United for the Homeless launched in February 2013 and is now in its first full winter season. Seven churches take turns hosting the shelter and volunteers staff it from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“Volunteers really drive the program,” said Director Bill Kelly said. “It takes a couple hundred volunteers per month to make it work.”
In December, the program housed an average of five men per night, Kelly said. The maximum capacity is 15, but the program has never had more than nine people scheduled in one night, he said.
Like Williston, most of the people seeking temporary shelter in Dickinson are newcomers who moved to North Dakota for jobs, Kelly said.
Williston city commissioners will consider a second and final reading of the ordinance at their Jan. 14 meeting. If approved, the earliest a group could apply for a permit is at the Jan. 28 meeting, Jarcik said.
The Salvation Army, New Hope and Saving Grace churches in partnership with the Williston Evangelical Ministerial Alliance are planning to apply for a permit.
In the meantime, Williston churches are doing what they can to provide assistance to people this winter. For example, First Lutheran Church held overnight prayer vigils during cold nights.
Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church provided temporary shelter from May 2011 until September. It stopped after city planning and zoning staff said the church needed several fire and building code upgrades to serve as a shelter.