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Williston approves new plan to shelter area homeless

WILLISTON, N.D. — The Williston City Commission has approved an area ministerial association’s joint plans with Mayor Ward Koeser to use the National Guard armory as an emergency homeless shelter.

Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously passed the second reading of an ordinance to issue a permit to Project Heat, which was spearheaded by The Williston Evangelical Ministerial Alliance, The Salvation Army, Saving Grace and New Hope.

A public hearing must still be held and commissioners may grant the final permit. Any permit issued would be valid from Nov. 1 to April 1. Project Heat would reapply to the city each year they want to continue such operations. Commissioners also passed an extension amendment to allow an extension for two weeks if extreme dangerous cold weather persists.

After much deliberation Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of using the armory as a shelter. The board agreed that if the shelter became non-compliant, the city would revoke its permit.

The mayor said overnight stays would be provided at the armory and the collaborating churches, since the National Guard hosts several events at the location throughout the year. If the armory is used, it’s operations would run from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Project Heat would donate money to fund armed security, Koeser said. This cost is estimated at $450 per night.

The mayor said the armory’s neighbors, which include the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Center on Main Street, would not be negatively impacted by the operations of the shelter.

Lee Lusht, the executive director at the chamber, said although she fully supports a “safe and viable space for temporary shelter for people in need,” she has concerns about using the armory as the prime facility.

“Our number one concern is the safety of our staff, our members and our neighbors,” Lusht said. “We will work closely with Project Heat and others involved to ensure that this works out for everybody.”

Commissioner Howard Klug, who voted against the mayor’s request, said the senior citizens working at the Heritage Center were against using the armory as a shelter.

“They will be impacted by this if it goes through,” Klug said, adding seniors asked where the homeless would go before and after operating hours.

Chris Swarthout, pastor at New Hope, said the Williston model for a homeless shelter is based on one now used in Dickinson, which provides shelter for six to 11 people a night.

The number of people allowed at the armory would depend upon the amount of those permitted to stay at the churches. This would be determined by the city Building Department.

“We really don’t know what the response would be,” Koeser said. “I know I would not want to spend the night out when it’s -25 and wind chill.”

Swarthout said Project Heat would fund security from 8:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. to accommodate the needs of its neighbors. His group would also provide education to their visitors.

“Our desire is to have a safe place for people to sleep at night,” Swarthout said.

He also said the group has more than 40 volunteers willing to operate the shelter, including janitorial maintenance.

“Our desire would be to leave the building as we found it,” Swarthout said.

Several members of the public spoke in favor of using the armory as a shelter.

Muriel Lippert of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Williston said the armory would be a good fit to meet the increasing amount of homeless in the area.

“(Project Heat) is trying to prevent people from freezing to death,” Lippert said.

Dennis Jensen of Williston Basin Youth for Christ said similar shelters have worked in Dickinson and Fargo.

“I believe this can be a very positive thing for Williston,” Jensen said.

Commissioner Brad Bekkedahl said the church group must be liable for any problems that may occur, and the city must have the right to rescind any permits as they deem necessary. The commission agreed with the terms.

“There has to be repercussions,” Bekkedahl said.

The mayor said this is new territory, something the city has never done. He asked the community to help with donations to fund armed security for the shelter.

“We as a community, if we care about these people, are going to have to come forward,” Koeser said.