Chicago Tribune, November 20, 2007: Poverty abounds in oil-rich Texas town

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By Shanna Sissom

New York Times News Service

November 20, 2007


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Wealth created by $90-a-barrel oil may have this region of West Texas booming, but not everyone is prospering.

Affordable housing is getting harder and harder to find for people such as Luz Sosa and others on Social Security, disability or fixed incomes.

Sosa, a 58-year-old stroke victim, is losing her apartment over a matter of $50 a month. The difference between $419 and a rent increase to $469 is just out of her reach.

Fearing she would be out on the streets, Sosa sought the assistance of Helping Hands, an organization that reaches out to the poor and needy. She is downsizing to a one-room dwelling.

Sosa feels blessed to have located it for $298 a month in a market where potential tenants are commonly on waiting lists for weeks, if not months.

Sosa’s monthly income of $600 to $700 includes wages she earns sitting with invalids. She worked as a Wal-Mart cashier for awhile, an occupation she loved, until her health deteriorated to the point she could no longer perform that job.

“I have to be very careful or I’ll run out of money, so I’m afraid to spend money because I have to save it for the bills, the rent and I have to wash,” she explained. “It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been able to eat at Taco Bell or get a hamburger.”

She’s not alone.

Judy and Louis Hoffman lost their rental house to a fire about a year ago, and then lived day-to-day in survival mode until very recently.

Louis Hoffman works as a fabricator, but the couple found themselves in a rut of living in cheap motels, never able to save enough for a rental deposit. Judy Hoffman is disabled after suffering a brain injury years ago. They’ve been married 15 years.

“Once you get in the hole, you can’t catch up,” Louis Hoffman said. “I make a fair wage but by the time you pay about $1,000 to $1,100 a month to live in a motel, you can’t put aside money for a deposit, so you don’t want to fall into the trap of moteling.”

The Hoffmans recently found a house they’re renting for $400 a month after the previous tenant could no longer afford to stay there. Now, the couple hopes for brighter days and is saving money to purchase a washing machine.

“We had hard times but we feel like we really lucked into this and the Lord blessed us,” Judy Hoffman said of their modest home.

Johnny Bell is among those currently living at the Salvation Army shelter, holding on to a dream of owning his own bakery someday. He wants to make special treats for diabetics, like himself.

Back and neck injuries prevent Bell from earning high dollars in the oil fields, so he currently works as a cook at a fast-food restaurant. After his family lost their apartment due to rental increases, Bell’s wife and child took shelter with relatives in Amarillo, Texas, until he can save enough money to acquire a new home.

“I’m trying to get myself together and I told my wife there ain’t no sense in us all living on the street,” he said.

The number of homeless people in Midland is clearly on the rise, those who seek to help them say.

“People are thinking the economy is so good, but in these times of prosperity, people don’t realize how severely it affects the have-nots,” explained Mary Hardin, executive director of Helping Hands. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Funded by private donations, the organization has $10,000 a week to help those in need, and lately has been running out of money by Tuesday.

“What we used to have in the past were landlords willing to work with their tenants if their tenants ran into some trouble, but now there’s very few managers who have permission or are willing to work with their tenants,” Hardin explained. “If you can’t get help from a church or benevolence agency, you’re out on the streets.”

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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