WILLISTON Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston was made to shutter its doors to the homeless for overnight stays for the last time Wednesday when a special permit for allowing the homeless to reside there was denied.
Fire and building safety codes, different for residences than for churches, was cited as the reason for the denial.
Pastor Jay Reinke, the pastor of the church and the principal person in charge, declined to comment on the issue when called Thursday.
A letter that Kent Jarcik, the director of planning and zoning for the City of Williston, sent to the church denying the request to continue to house homeless there was dated Aug. 12 and the church had 30 days to end the program.
"In process of review, it primarily doesn't meet fire and building code (for residence)," Jarcik said in an interview with The Minot Daily News.
Jarcik was quick to point out that the city had not "banned" the church from housing the homeless, they just had to deny the request at this point.
Dickinson advises Williston
WILLISTON Representatives of united churches in Dickinson have been asked by at least one minister in Dickinson to come and give a presentation to Williston on how area churches can best help alleviate some of the homeless struggles in the city. If current plans hold, a presentation will be held Oct. 8.
Dickinson Churches United for the Homeless, a fellowship of 12 churches within the city, have been operating since February as a shelter for the area's homeless. They developed their integrated system largely on that of Fargo's, while taking the differences between the cities into account.
"The first thing we did was take Fargo's plan, we're unique to Fargo in this way, they have shelters and they take the overflow. They take the cream of the crop, you can say, they get the best guests. We don't have that," Ron Dazzell, pastor of the Evangelical Bible Church in Dickinson and a leader of the united group, said to The Minot Daily News.
The city only has a crisis shelter to house women and children victimized by domestic violence or rape. But men are left without support.
The churches in Dickinson experienced a similar problem with Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston in that the churches are not set up nor zoned for mass residence, but instead are zoned, for some reason, as "single-family dwellings," Dazzell said. So, they applied and received special permits for six of the churches to house the homeless. They do so on a weekly rotating basis.
To make sure they could stay in operation, they put as many safety features and safeguards in place as possible, including submitting building and fire plans to city officials and providing a nightly list of shelter occupants to the police department.
"At the end of the day I can tell you it's overkill, but that's okay," Dazzell said.
Other safeguards include background checks and warrant checks on all occupants and volunteers, which can often be done immediately at the police department. The police, like other social service agencies in the area, serve as "entry-points" into the program.
"Sometimes people think that they (the homeless) all know each other and that they have some kind of gang or club," Dazzell said. "And that's not true. They appreciate that you do the background check."
Dazzell hopes that their system, in development since February, will serve as a good case study and precedent for other cities to get proactive on helping the homeless, including, "the biblical reasons for the body of Christ to minister to the homeless."
"We figure, on the simpler side of things, with a sprinkler and alarm system it would make it safe and I would sign off on it," said Alan Hanson, the Williston fire chief, in an interview to The Minot Daily News. "The city building department will have different aspects and they'll look, but mine (his responsibility) is simply life safety and those would point in that direction."
Both of the officials believed there was support in the community to help bring the church up to code and continue to operate as a shelter.
"I still think there is support in the community for fundraising and options," Jarcik said.
"I support what he's trying to do. It's just when it gets brought to me I have to follow code," said Hanson, adding his personal support.
"I know I've been told that I'm supposed to be going to hell for shutting down what they're trying to do," he added, with a laugh.
The City of Williston currently has no actual shelters for the homeless in place, despite being a destination for many people seeking work who can't immediately afford residence there.
"Hopefully the community will step up and do it," said Michael Carbone, the executive director of the North Dakota Homeless Coalition, to The Minot Daily News on community support for the church and its efforts. "Hopefully they can do it quickly enough so that they'll have something in place before the cold weather comes again."
"Williston is one of those cities that doesn't have shelters," said Mac McLeod, the director of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition and current board member and past chairman of the North Dakota Homeless Coalition, in an interview. "And they're being overwhelmed."
"This is being done in other parts of the state through churches and I know that a couple of churches in Minot are looking into providing emergency shelters, too," he added. "I think anything that can be done to help alleviate or lesson some of the issues of no housing or people being put through emotional distress is great."
"Obviously we want anybody staying in any public building to have some sort of protection," Carbone said. "At the same time we need to protect people from the elements so I think it's unfortunate that the church had to cease but I hope that in the future they will begin doing so."
"I think that's entirely appropriate for a church to offer the opportunity (for housing)," he added.