MOORHEAD — He rents “shop space” in a cold-storage building in this city’s industrial park, but isn’t using it for woodworking or any other hobby.
Instead, “Homeless Dave,” as he calls himself, has turned the spot not meant for human habitation into his home.
Boxes overflowing with household items cover the concrete floor. A bumper-pull camper parked inside is where he showers and sleeps.
A makeshift office, where he uses his old computer, is shrouded in tarps and equipped with heat lamps to stave off the winter chill.
Dave, 50, has lived here nearly three years. Before that, he lived in a similar setting in Bismarck.
“I’m trying. I’m trying to maintain as normal a life as I possibly can under the conditions that I’m in,” he said.
The Forum granted Dave's request not to use his full name or show his face, because he fears he’ll be kicked out of the space.
Cody Schuler, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition to End Homelessness, wouldn’t estimate how many people in the area “sleep rough” in campers or cars because they're a hidden, hard-to-count population.
“They’ll do that because it feels safe to them,” Schuler said.
Pastor Sue Koesterman, executive director of Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, said it wears on a person’s health in a serious way to not be adequately sheltered.
“It’s a very, very precarious, kind of day-by-day existence,” Koesterman said.
For Dave, finding work and keeping money coming in hasn’t been a problem.
After he left a painting job because the fumes made him sick, he was unemployed for a little more than a month before finding a full-time position as a machinist for a local trailer manufacturer.
He said he doesn’t receive any government assistance. His driving record is good, and he has a minimal criminal record.
The primary barrier to him finding a place to rent is that he’s never had a credit card. “I don’t have bad credit, I have no credit,” he said.
In addition, landlords want to talk to previous landlords about whether potential renters pay on time, and whether they left any damage in their previous place.
Because of his somewhat transient, under-the-radar lifestyle, Dave doesn’t have any references like that.
“All I have is a bunch of receipts from a place I’m not supposed to be living in,” he said.
So, he continues to rent the shop space in the industrial park for a substantial $1,000 a month, with additional expenses for heat and internet.
“There’s that saying, ‘We need someone who thinks outside the box or looks outside the box.’ Well, I live outside the box,” Dave said.
Cold, cramped quarters
It’s a challenge for Dave to stay warm in the shop. He uses space heaters and heat lamps to supplement a single wall-mounted heater.
On a mild winter day when The Forum visited, the temperature inside was barely 60 degrees.
Dave has no access to a kitchen, so he prepares meals on a crowded shop table. A toaster oven, steamer and slow cooker fight for space in the clutter.
“Forgive the big pile of dirty dishes,” Dave said.
The place has a one-gallon water heater, so he can wash only a few dishes at a time in the bathroom sink before the hot water runs out. He has a small refrigerator, freezer and washer but no dryer, so he hangs his clothes to dry.
A string of lights is draped down the side of the camper — not because he has Christmas spirit, he said, but to provide a lighted path if he gets up at night to use the bathroom.
A dog and cat keep Dave company. He built a large, enclosed “litter box” filled with sand for the animals to use when he’s away at work.
He doesn’t often take his dog outdoors, so as not to raise suspicion about his living arrangement. Both animals need veterinary care, but he said he doesn’t have the time or money to take them in.
There are people all over the country like Dave living in vehicles, campers or storage units. Often, they’ve shunned shelters because they’ve had a bad experience at one or feel anxious in crowded spaces.
The phenomenon of “vehicular homelessness” is growing, especially in high-rent metropolitan areas on the West Coast.
While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn’t collect vehicle-specific data, unsheltered homelessness — which includes people sleeping in cars — is on the rise.
According to a HUD-required, point-in-time count on a single night in January 2018, a third of the more than 550,000 homeless people nationwide were living unsheltered, such as on the street, in abandoned buildings or cars. That represents a nearly 3 percent increase from the previous year.
Point-in-time numbers for North Dakota have bounced around.
In January 2017, the most recent count available, 331 of 1,089 homeless people statewide were unsheltered. Only five years earlier, 53 of 688 homeless people were reported as unsheltered.
A major spike occurred in 2013, when 1,395 of 2,069 homeless people were unsheltered.
As numbers rise, more cities are imposing criminal or civil punishments on people living in their vehicles. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reports that in 2016, nearly 40 percent of cities surveyed prohibited living in vehicles, a 143 percent increase since 2006.
'Stuck in a rut'
Dave knew of a half dozen others living in storage units in Bismarck.
He’s not aware of people like him in the Fargo-Moorhead area, “but I can guarantee you there are,” he said.
Schuler said there are nearly 300 beds in the area’s seven shelters, and they’re always full. When people call seeking a bed, it’s hard to know if they have been staying in a vehicle because they rarely volunteer that information.
"They’re afraid they might get pushed out of the space they have, because the space you have is better than no space at all," Koesterman said.
Dave said his body is beat up from working manual labor jobs and being homeless. He’s proud of his resiliency, but desperately wants to find something better.
Someday, he hopes to buy a small piece of land and put a single-wide mobile home on it, but that someday seems far away.
"I'm stuck in a rut, between being able to get into a legitimate place to live and, you know, being under a bridge," he said.