The ND Homeless Continuum of Care (CoC) is conducting a Point-in-Time (PIT) count of people in need of shelter throughout the state. The PIT count will take place Jan. 25 and includes Williston.
Although homelessness is not as prevalent in North Dakota during winter months as it is in warmer states, the PIT count is crucial because the state relies on accurate numbers to receive funding from the federal government to accommodate sheltered individuals.
"The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires CoCs to conduct a count of sheltered people experiencing homelessness annually," according to a ND Housing Finance Agency press release. Although the government requires unsheltered counts only in odd-numbered years, "ND's CoC conducts one annually," the press release stated.
"We want to collect the data on an annual basis," North Dakota CoC coordinator Shawnel Willer said. "We feel it's important to do a year-to-year comparison to see where we're at."
In 2019, the state recorded only 12 people as homeless.
"Last year, we recorded 83 unsheltered individuals," Willer said. "We've had more of an effort the past couple of years to collect better data across the state and a more organized effort to conduct [the] Point-in-Time count."
In addition to collecting accurate PIT data, Willer said there has been an increase in homelessness over the past few years.
"In 2021, Williston actually had the highest count" of unsheltered individuals of all the "areas" in the state, Willer said.
According to data provided by Willer, 37 individuals were counted as homeless in the Williston area in 2021.
The CoC program "provides funding to support efforts to end homelessness, promotes access to and effective utilization of programs, and optimizes the self-sufficiency of individuals and families experiencing homelessness," according to the state's Housing Finance Agency.
Liz Larsen, Region 1 and 2 lead, said because there is no homeless shelter in Williams County, it can be challenging to meet the needs of displaced people in the area.
"An area lead coordinates the volunteers to ensure the information collected from service providers is clean and current while law enforcement, healthcare and other providers work together to identify persons who are unsheltered," the ND press release states.
Region 1 combines Williams, Divide and McKenzie counties, Larsen said.
"Right now, in Region 1, there is no one that is housing the homeless," she said. Larsen credited local churches — in addition to non-profit organizations and area public schools — with assisting to help count homeless individuals in Williams County.
"There's a lot of really good people who are doing good work, like the Salvation Army, Community Action and the Family Crisis Center" to help provide for homeless people, Larsen said.
Larsen also serves as the Executive Director for Project BEE (Bring Equity and Empowerment) in Minot.
Larsen emphasized the importance of the PIT count, not only to receive federal funding but to help shelter people in need of housing.
"It's just really useful data so we can determine how many [individuals] are actively homeless, or at risk of being homeless," Larsen said.
"It's so important that we are out in the community" getting an accurate sense of the homeless crisis, she continued.
In addition to providing data under federal requirements, Larsen emphasized the numbers are useful in attracting community support.
"We can use that data...when we're trying to tell our story for private volunteers and individual donors," she said.
Larsen referred to the PIT count of homeless individuals as "hard data" that informs federal government officials, which in turn ensures cities like Williston receive their share of federal funding.
Willer echoed those comments.
"This information also goes to the U.S. Congress, so it makes a difference for the funding from the federal government that goes to our state, as well," Willer said of the PIT count, scheduled for Jan. 25. "We are getting more information, which helps give more [data] to our state and local leaders, which helps us get funding."
Most of the funding goes toward providing rapid-rehousing, transitional and permanent housing for displaced people, Willer explained.
"We're going to make sure that everybody is counted," Larsen said. "It's really important for us as providers so we can make sure our best interests are represented at the federal level to tell our story.
"We have to have these numbers," BEE's executive director continued. "We have to have the data so we can advocate for our organization and our clients."
With the economy currently in a downturn, Larsen noted more people throughout the United States are experiencing homelessness.
"There's a lot more people struggling...and asking for help," she said.