The Promised Land

Photographs by Charles Ommanney

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Ten years ago, Williston, North Dakota, was a fairly unremarkable agricultural town near the Canadian border. Today, due largely to advancements in fracking technology, it is at the center of America’s biggest oil boom. The population of the small town has doubled as oil workers stream in, attracted by high wages.

Kelly Miller arrived in Williston from Idaho, where he was unemployed. His girlfriend and child are back in Idaho and he hopes to make enough money in six months to go back, buy a house, and bring up his child up properly. New arrivals like Miller are often unprepared for the city’s severe housing shortage. As people flock to the area living costs have skyrocketed, with rental prices rivaling those of Manhattan. Apartments that used to rent for $400 per month five years ago are going for four times that today, and homes that sold for $60,000 are now on the market for $200,000. Miller lives in a 6-ft by 4-ft trailer (left) on the outskirts of town.

Each time someone new arrives at Concordia Lutheran Church looking for a place to stay, the Rev. Jay Reinke has the same reaction: “Oh Lord, not another one.” The small Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Williston has 50 to 70 job-seekers sleeping inside the church on a typical night, with dozens more who stay in their vehicles in the church parking lot. Those in need of housing quickly hear about Concordia through word of mouth. The practice started in May 2011 after a man from Idaho told Reinke he was going to give up and go home; Reinke invited him to sleep on the floor of the church.

With the thousands who have come to seek out their fortunes has also come a crime wave previously unheard of in the area. The Williston Police Department is getting more calls in a month now than it used to in a year. There has been a serious spike in violent crime, from a couple of cases a week to a couple of cases a day. Even worse conditions are present in Poplar, just up the road from Williston. There is believed to be just as much oil under the town as there is under Williston but it lays on an Indian reservation and consequently is caught up in a mess of bureaucracy. Due to the perception of a violent crime rate, including murder, Poplar is referred to locally as "Stab City."