Earlier this week, a dozen men lined up under the orange glow of a streetlight, waiting to get inside the Ruth Meiers men’s emergency shelter.
Tonight, many of those men will spend the night in donated sleeping bags in their cars, park benches or entryways of churches.
Ruth Meiers Hospitality House closed this morning the only homeless shelter of its kind in Bismarck-Mandan, a deadline that coincides with the first snowflakes of the winter season.
By 7 a.m., all residents were to leave the facility at 305 N. 23rd St. or be charged with trespassing, according to a sign posted at the entrance of the shelter.
The abrupt closing has left many residents resigned, and homeless advocates are questioning why a longstanding homeless shelter would shut down an essential service for homeless men in the capital city.
"I’m just going to sleep outside,” said shelter resident, Beau Azure. "The city don’t care; nobody cares here. We’re homeless; they’re glad to see us die."
Joby Zimmerman, a shelter resident recently released from prison, questioned why the community would allow a shelter to close without a backup plan.
"They all know what the winters are like here,” Zimmerman said.
The men's shelter charged residents $2 a night. Some residents now may opt to go to Ruth Meiers' primary facility, 1110 E. Boulevard Ave., which offers a transitional living program for $60 a week. But not all can get in, as the program does not admit those with certain felony convictions, including sex offenders or those convicted of violent crimes.
Residents said rumors about the shelter closing ran rampant since the start of summer, but they weren’t officially made aware that they would have to leave until the signs went up on doors this past week. Some men already have left to go to homeless shelters in Fargo and other states in advance of the closure.
Zimmerman was released from the state penitentiary on May 20, and, with nowhere else to go, he went to the men's shelter — a common conundrum for men released from the prison in Bismarck, he said.
As rumors were circulating conditions got worse at the shelter, according to Zimmerman. Some residents have wondered whether it’s a coincidence that the shelter has closed at the beginning of winter.
"It’s almost like they did it on purpose,” said shelter resident Terry Pierson, who has stayed on and off at the shelter for the past three years. Pierson said he will sleep in his car.
For the past several weeks, local nonprofit groups have been scrambling to find a solution to the men's shelter closing, but have had a short timetable.
Sister Kathleen Atkinson, who works with men in her prison re-entry ministry, Ministry on the Margins, said the announcement last week that the shelter would be closing Friday rather than Oct. 31, which was initially conveyed to the groups, came as a surprise to her and others.
"To do it without communication so people can respond to the need, to do it with this short-term (notice), has been very difficult," Atkinson said this week, adding response has been tough due to "inconsistent and last-minute information" from Ruth Meiers' leadership.
Steve Neu, interim executive director for Ruth Meiers, said residents were made aware of the possible closure, with conversations about the building’s sale going on for “an extended period of time.”
Ruth Meiers recently accepted a bid on the property from the Heartview Foundation, which plans to renovate the building for chemical dependency treatment and recovery support services. Heartview would allow the building to be used as a shelter this winter, but only if another entity would provide staffing and funding. That won’t be an option until Heartview closes on the building in mid-November.
Jeannie Messall, executive director for the Missouri Valley Coalition for Homeless People, said her recollection is the first she knew that Ruth Meiers was closing the emergency shelter was from The Bismarck Tribune story published on Aug. 5.
“We heard rumors and people talking, but I don’t think we knew for sure until it came out in the paper,” Messall said.
Dwight Barden, executive director of the Burleigh County Housing Authority, said the timeline of the closure kept changing and there was uncertainty until the building was sold.
“Until it was specifically decided that their offer would be accepted, it was kind of up in the air,” said Barden, who expressed hope that a plan will come together to reopen the shelter at the current location.
Ruth Meiers Hospitality House originally opened in 1987 as a response to those in need of emergency shelter. Atkinson said that need still remains.
"Their community support came because they provided emergency shelter," Atkinson said. "It continues as a need and now we're in a crisis, responding to that need."