Where there’s work, there’s hope, even if it’s thin
If you squint your eyes and pray for deliverance, North Dakota can look a lot like the Promised Land. There’s shale and fracking and plenty of pipeline to be laid. Unemployment, at 3.5 percent, is the lowest in the nation. One estimate has it that 2,000 new millionaires are made there every year.
If you Google oil jobs in North Dakota, the listings go on and on, and the money looks good. To a guy like 48-year-old Brian Pinkston, a long out-of-work journeyman plumber, the pull is nearly irresistible.
About 15 years ago, Pinkston’s life turned to shit. He ran for a bit with meth dealers and gun runners and got caught. He served his five-year bid, but then the punishment kept coming. That’s how it is for felons in America. With jobs at a premium, they’re out frozen in the cold.
Work, when he could find it, was mostly under the table and too irregular for housing. Homeless and living outdoors, any ray of hope looked like salvation.
North Dakota called — $22 to $28 an hour. Come on out.
I heard about Pinkston from Rex Hohlbein, the Fremont architect who volunteers as a photographer for Real Change and runs a popular Facebook page called Homeless in Seattle. Hohlbein’s homeless-helping social networking site had landed Pinkston an odd job here and there, but those weren’t enough.
Pinkston had his bus ticket and was ready to roll, but still needed boots, overalls and a cold-weather coat. When it’s October and you’re headed for North Dakota, you don’t mess around. He priced the goods, and the bill came to $300.
Homeless in Seattle told the story, and the donations came in. As Pinkston prepared to go, Hohlbein did some homework.
In North Dakota, crappy trailer park units go for $2,500 a month, and rents for pretty much everyone have almost tripled. The Walmart lots, which let camper owners park their vehicles overnight, looked like refugee camps until the bargain retailer kicked everyone out. There were just too many. The customers were complaining.
Now “no overnight parking” signs have sprouted everywhere, like spring dandelions.
The Salvation Army in Williston, the biggest boomtown around, is buying homeless folks one-way bus tickets south. The shelters are full, and the deadly cold is coming.
Fattened by mineral rights payments and oil tax revenue, the state treasury in Bismarck is running a billion dollar surplus. More shelters, however, are out of the question. Those would just attract the homeless.
As Hohlbein read this aloud, he noticed Pinkston had gone quiet. “Do you want to hear this?” he asked.
“No,” said Pinkston, “I’m going.”
Homeless in Seattle raised the money and got a bargain on the supplies. The downtown Carhartt store, hearing the story, gave them a healthy discount. A working man’s got to have his Carhartts.
Having few good options, Pinkston’s taken the Greyhound and gone. And why not? It’s not like living in the rain down by the Ballard Ship Canal was a whole lot better. Where there’s work, there’s hope, even if it’s thin.
Say a prayer for Pinkston. Say a prayer for all of us. Because for every new millionaire in North Dakota, there’s at least a hundred Pinkstons, all with a will to live and nothing left to lose.
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