Marion Patton was homeless for three years before Catholic Charities of Fort Worth “saved her” through its street outreach program.
She’s in a one-bedroom apartment now in southwest Fort Worth. Her rent is subsidized by the Fort Worth Housing Authority. Otherwise she’d never be able to make payments, eat, and pay for the bus to get to work. She pays just $250 for the apartment. But even that is about 30 percent of her modest monthly income.
The rest of her budget goes something like this: $30 for the bus, $45 for her phone, $150 for groceries, and $10 for medications. She gets $40 a month in food stamps, and she spends a little on clothes and on her two cats, Baby and Angel, whom she spoils with toys and warm milk (in addition to lots of love).
She puts $20 into savings each month and gives as much as she can to her 31-year-old son. She even gave one of her co-workers $25 for food when the young woman came up short a couple of months ago. (When you make $800 a month, $25 is a small fortune.)
In Fort Worth, housing is extremely expensive for low-wage workers. The cheapest all-bills-paid apartment in the city is about $600 a month, Petrovich said, but the typical rent in Tarrant County is closer to $940.
Currently, 9,000 people are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing in the city. Petrovich knows a woman who waited three and a half years for her name to reach the top of the list. More than affordability, safety is another huge concern for low-wage workers looking for a place to live here.
Subsisting on minimum wage in Texas puts people on the edge of catastrophe every day. They don’t have enough money in case something goes wrong. And something, invariably, does.
And when it does, that small space between barely getting by and being homeless disappears. Petrovich said he knows people living at Presbyterian Night Shelter who are working minimum-wage jobs. “But the jobs don’t give them the income they need to escape homelessness,” he said. “It’s really hard to be self-sufficient on minimum-wage salaries.”
The National Women’s Law Center reports that more than six out of 10 minimum-wage workers in Texas are women.
Why the disparity?
“The lower you go in pay, the more predominately female the professions are,” explained CPPP’s Garrett Groves.
In 2013, 64 percent of minimum-wage employees worked in food preparation or serving occupations. Think: waitress, cook, hostess. The next largest group included service categories, including home health and personal care aides, jobs filled mostly by women.
In addition to working traditionally low-paying jobs, women in Texas (and the rest of the country) still experience a wage gap. That gap persists across the employment spectrum from blue collar to white collar, and it means women earn an average of 79 cents to a man’s dollar, according to a 2014 report from the Texas Women’s Foundation.
Because women hold the majority of minimum-wage jobs and get paid less than men for the same work, they’re at a far greater risk of facing financial catastrophe. So it’s no surprise that the fastest growing group of homeless people in the country is women and children.
Back at Braum’s, I ask Marion Patton how she does, working a part-time job making $9 an hour?
“By the grace of God,” she said, lifting her arm to the sky and wiping a tear from her cheek. “By the grace of God.”
Schmelzle works full-time, but she knows she’ll never be able to make a better life for herself or be self-sufficient working at Denny’s. So she has bigger plans.
“What’s your dream job?” I ask.
“A nurse,” she says without hesitation. “I want to be a nurse. … I never went to college. I never did any of that. I thought, ‘I’m pregnant. He’s going to marry me. We’re going to be a happy family.’ But none of that happened.”
“At least not yet,” I say.
“Yeah, not yet,” she says with a smile.
Schmelzle looks down at the coffee getting cold in her cup and checks the time on her phone. It’s 3 p.m., and she’s got to get home to clean up, make dinner, pick up her youngest, help the other kids with their homework, get them bathed and put to bed, and wake up tomorrow at 6 a.m. to do it all over again.
Tonight’s dinner is boiled cabbage and spaghetti with meatballs. The family eats together on porcelain plates given to Schmelzle by a friend, sitting around a wooden table donated by Cornerstone. The 4-year-old is clamoring for his mom’s attention while she cooks. He’s trying to find his Spider-Man action figure, but it’s hidden somewhere in the small room he shares with his older brother and sister, a room with three twin-sized beds, each pushed against a wall, with stuffed animals peaking out beneath the neatly folded sheets.