Glawe Column: Do North Dakota Leaders Share Blame For Homeless Man's Amputations?

A homeless man walks on a Williston street - Photo by author
A homeless man walks on a Williston street – Photo by author

Let me ask you something, not as North Dakotans, but as human beings: What is your reaction to the following headline?

Man moves to North Dakota looking for work, ends up homeless and living in a dumpster

If it’s that Wayne Williams, the subject of Lauren Donovan’s story in Tuesday’s Bismarck Tribune, should have planned ahead for the brutal North Dakota winter, or that city officials can’t possibly be held responsible for the actions of a homeless population often unpredictable in their behavior, or that Williams’ situation is a tragic but unintended consequence of an economic recession that has sent thousands to this state for work, that’s fine. But now that we know what the reality is, the question is: What’s next?

Williams, a 52-year-old with stumps for legs now cut off just below the knee, should have been a man whose name and story reverberated across the state Tuesday.

I’m not sure it did.

A quick reading of comments on the Tribune’s Facebook page shows a debate centered around personal responsibility versus sympathy for those like Williams and other homeless who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

But I’d like to throw another take into the mix.

Wayne Williams lost his feet because he made poor decisions, exacerbated by alcoholism and the lack of a job and home. But the blame for Williams’ new life as a taxpayer-funded invalid can also be placed on North Dakota’s politicians. They failed badly to recognize the boom’s potential to attract massive quantities of poor and in Williams case, under-prepared, workers to the state.

They’ve further failed to recognize what kind of social service infrastructure is needed to address situations like Williams’. Meanwhile, oil-related revenue keeps pouring in.

The boom is weighing on infrastructure — of both the transportation and social service kinds. In the case of those in Fargo, the lack of shelters out west have resulted in an eastward migration of the homeless.

“People have to understand there’s a problem and unless we address it as a statewide community — and the sooner the better — this will continue to grow,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told National Public Radio.

Fargo seems to be more prepared to handle homeless men and women, but that’s not the case for Watford City, according to that town’s mayor.

“We didn’t have the tools” to handle men like Williams, Mayor Brent Sanford said in the Tribune’s story. “It’s a system with big holes.”

The money is there, but so far it’s been used to fix holes in roads, not in the social service infrastructure that appears to be lacking in the oil patch.

In the case of Williston, city staff told a church late last year they’d have to cease giving shelter to the homeless if they couldn’t upgrade their facility. Consider it a case where the government tells a private group — Concordia Lutheran Church — that their infrastructure isn’t up to snuff.

Williston, where Mayor Ward Koeser and others are now calling for the National Guard Armory to be used as a temporary homeless shelter, is one case. Watford City is another. In both towns, the boom has brought people looking for work, and they’re now realizing some who haven’t found it have stayed.

I can’t help but wonder, what will the reaction be if the next Wayne Williams loses more than just his feet?