How many homeless people live in the Fargo area? Volunteers rise early to count.

The federal government requires point-in-time counts of homeless people under its continuum of care program, which provides funding for local homeless housing and services.

Driver Shelby Moch and Echo Altoff driving near downtown Fargo while en route to a job agency on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.jpg
Social workers Shelby Moch, left, and Echo Altoff drive to a job agency in Fargo on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, as part of a nationwide effort to count homeless people.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

FARGO — In the frigid predawn hours of a recent morning, three local social workers joined thousands of volunteers across the nation in an annual count of homeless people.

Tasked with searching job centers in the Fargo area, social workers Emily Meester, Echo Altoff and Shelby Moch also checked dumpsters, entryways to buildings, parked cars, and they kept alert for those walking down sidewalks and others laden with backpacks at bus stops.

Other teams of local volunteers checked different areas like bridges, riverbanks, parking lots and other places.

The volunteers tried to ask survey questions of those who had no place to live. The effort was part of a nationwide point-in-time count that aimed to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night.

Shelby Moch and Echo Altoff arrive at Labor Masters to see if anyone is experiencing homelessness.jpg
As part of a nationwide point-in-time count, Shelby Moch and Echo Altoff stop at Labor Masters, 1404 33rd St. S.W. in Fargo, to see if anyone is experiencing homelessness.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Trying not to alarm people hours before the sun rose on Thursday, Jan. 26, Meester, Moch and Altoff first approached a man in his car at Heartland Labor on North University Drive. He agreed to fill out a survey, but declined an interview with The Forum.


Moch, the driver, chased down another man with a red backpack and a cup of coffee.

“We can drive by again, as creepy as that sounds,” Moch said. “It feels like it would be better to count in the summer, but winter shows those who literally have no place else to be.”

“Realistically, we aren’t going to get an accurate count because we aren’t part of that culture,” Altoff said.

The point-in-time counts are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under its continuum of care program. The program provides funding for homeless housing and services that Meester, Altoff and Moch work with on a daily basis.

One man, who only gave his name as Preston, filled out the survey and received a gift of warm socks on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2023.jpg
A man, who only gave his name as Preston, filled out a survey as part of a nationwide count of people experiencing homelessness, and received a gift of warm socks on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2023, in Fargo.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Since 2020, Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding areas have consistently been at about 950 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, according to the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition to End Homelessness. Estimates include people in emergency shelters, those staying in a temporary home, doubled up with a friend or relative, and those living on the streets.

Armed with large coffee mugs that they sipped between stops, the three social workers took turns approaching people, which they know in the dark and early hours could become dangerous. Moch took her turn while Altoff kept a little distance to watch her buddy’s back.

“I would never do this alone,” Altoff said.

Meester mostly works out of an office, but when her gut instincts tell her something isn’t right she brings a coworker. “Just because they’re outside doesn’t mean they’re dangerous,” Meester said.


One person they spoke to said he never had a safe place to sleep. Another said he had grown so desperate that he was considering robbing a bank. The social workers passed out information pamphlets, treats and clean socks to those who needed them.

By 8 a.m., they counted four people who were homeless. By the time they finished an hour later, they counted six people.

Local numbers from this year's point-in-time count were not immediately available, and the national report compiled by HUD typically comes out months after the count happens.

On a single night in 2022, about 582,500 people were homeless nationwide, with 40% sheltered in places not suitable for human habitation, according to HUD data.

Numbers in North Dakota appear lower than most other states, but with a population nearing 750,000 there were 610 people in 2022 who were homeless. Additionally, HUD reported that about 170 people were experiencing chronic homelessness.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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