North Texas Daily

A Hard Life

A Hard Life

August 14
14:36 2014

A Long Form Narrative by Dave Tracy

Andrea lifts Leah out of the car seat, clicks the door locks on her 11-year old Ford Focus, and heads for the shelter of the Kroger’s Grocery Store on University Avenue in Denton. It’s raining. Storm clouds clutter Andrea’s mind. She is worried. But determined.

I don’t have enough money for what we need, she thinks, but I’ve got enough to get by, for today.

Every month she struggles to pay the bills. Andrea has worked part time in minimum wage retail jobs ($200), but she is not working now. Her total expenses run about $1,285 a month.[1] Andrea’s regular monthly income includes: Women, Infants and Children (WIC) support ($100), Food Stamps ($250), child-support from Leah’s father, Zach ($300) for a total of $650 a month. When Zach lives with her and Leah, as he is now, his $1,200 a month income is split 3 ways, pushing the total income to $1,750 a month. But there’s no guarantee how long he will be around.

To save on food costs and to pick up some extra money, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Andrea gets a free lunch at the community soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread, in the basement of the Presbyterian Church downtown, and twice-weekly donations of her blood plasma at Bio-Life behind the Wal-Mart off the loop – for 20 bucks a pop – leaves this 24-year old single mother looking up at the poverty line.[1]

She is not alone. According to the Census Bureau, half of all female heads-of-household with children under age five are at a greater risk of living in poverty than any other age group.[1] In Denton, there has been a 6.5 percent in WIC participation (from 2009-2010), and a 152 percent increase in food stamp use (from 2006-2011) among young mothers like Andrea.[2]

Back at the Kroger’s, Andrea scans the store shelves, agonizing over infant formula for Leah, who is asleep. She finally gets something she says is way too expensive, but Leah needs it. In the next aisle, Andrea picks out a treat for Zach, white string cheese.

“I’ll have to hide this behind other stuff in the veggie drawer,” she says, “or he’ll eat it all at once.”

The last item she buys is a Mounds candy bar. “Hmmm, this is for me,” she says, smiling.

Leah is still asleep as they checkout, paying $73.13 for a week’s food for herself, Leah and Zach, she heads home, looking in the rearview mirror often to check on Leah. As she drives the short distance back home, Andrea thinks about her job interview in two days with Zodiac, an airplane manufacturing plant half an hour north in Gainesville. The recruiter told Andrea “here’s our best job.”

Armed with an Associates of Science degree from North Central Texas College (NCTC), she tried to feel confident. But Andrea worries the company’s mandatory background checks will reveal she’s been convicted of two misdemeanor crimes, and that will kill the deal.

That’s exactly what happens a week later. She shares the news at a local soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread, with a woman she met last year.

“I wasn’t surprised. My record haunts me, it always will.”

Andrea stands up to leave, thinking, I need to get Leah, left with a friend who’s watching her for free.

“Where you goin’?”

“Nowhere.” She sits back down, sipping her apple juice.

Nearly a hundred people are eating here today, a mix of ages, mostly men, a few kids. It’s okay if you take seconds, even thirds. No ID, no formalities, no charge. Today’s menu is sliced ham with gravy, bread, salad, two chocolate chip cookies, cheesecake, and apple juice. Friends exchange greetings, ask about jobs, share stories, and laugh, a short break from the harsh reality waiting outside.

Andrea walks over to a table to check out the latest job listings. Nothing new here, she thinks, I’ve seen this stuff already. But she’s not discouraged.

“Something will open up,” she says to Kresheera.

“Took seven months for me to find a job, and then I lost it.”

“I remember,” says Andrea.

“Couldn’t get anyone to watch my two kids.”

“I would have helped.”

“You’ve got Leah, that’s enough,” says her friend.

Andrea smiles as she hugs Kresheera goodbye.

“See you Thursday.”

“Count on it.”

After picking up Leah, Andrea pulls up to her apartment on Bernard, a few blocks from the University of North Texas campus. Her sister is waiting outside.



She hands Leah to Mandy, “hey beautiful,” and opens the front door. They go inside. Zach, wearing a Superman t-shirt, is playing a video game in the living room. Eyes locked on to the TV, he smiles as the sisters head to the bedroom to change Leah, who is now crying. Andrea’s says, “poor baby,” giving her small kisses. “Put your arm in there, you’re a pretty baby.” Then Andrea has a big hug for Leah when she’s through. “Good girl, good job,” she says.

After food, housing is a major concern. More than half (57%) of all renters who are below the poverty level in Denton are living in units they cannot afford. [3] In Texas, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) estimates a minimum wage earner ($7.25/hour) has to work 88 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to afford a two-bedroom apartment that costs $830 a year. [4]

“Our lease runs out in two July,” says Andrea, “and I don’t know where we’re going to live if I don’t find work.” She has complained eight times to the apartment landlord about the smell of sewage, but nothing has happened yet. “I had this apartment,” she says. “We really want to move to a decent place.”

The single-bedroom apartment they live in sits in the middle of three blocks of dodgy apartments near the University of North Texas campus. Cozy and small, the apartment is about 750 square feet. A used couch and chair take up half the living room. There’s a flat TV on a stand near the window. A big clock hangs from the wall behind the chair. Knick-knacks adorn a small table along with a lamp and a vase with fake flowers near the door. Outside the kitchen is a battery-powered swing set that Leah loves. It’s red and yellow with a picture of a smiling lion on the front. It’s the only thing that looks new. At night, Andrea and Zach take turns sleeping in the bed. Whoever’s not taking care of Leah sleeps on the lumpy, sagging couch in the living room.

Mandy lives in Keller, an hour away, and is a rare visitor. She and Andrea have three younger sisters, Paisley, Rachel, and Sydney, whom they never see anymore, the result of their mother moving out 20 years ago, then their father 13 years ago. Andrea, who’s a year older than Mandy, both lived with their grandfather, the other three sisters lived with their grandmother.

Amanda admits now that she was physically and sexually abused by her grandfather when they lived with him. Mandy was clueless. “Grandpa said I had to be nice to him so he wouldn’t bother you,” says Andrea. “I was only 10 when he started touching me. I couldn’t make him stop. I couldn’t tell anyone. I was trapped, with no escape.”

Andrea has never told anyone exactly what happened, and she has no plans to share it now, even with her own sister.

“I never knew,” says Mandy.

“I did it hoping he’d never touch you.”

“He never did. I had no idea then how much you had suffered.”

During the 5 years they lived with their grandfather, Andrea and Mandy hung in there together, cared and cried for each other, got though the tough times, created a strong, lasting bond.

“I never wanted you to know,” says Andrea, “but it’s okay that you know now. You’re safe from him.”

Bearing a secret burden, Andrea felt she didn’t fit in with the “normal” kids in high school. She took chances, “acting out,” to get attention. She moved in with her boyfriend at the time to get away from her grandfather. The pair started using pot, pills and meth. In 2012, he broke into her grandfather’s barn and stole tools, tire rims, wire and metal. Even though Andrea wasn’t present at the theft, she was arrested as an accessory to the crime because she had told him how to get into the barn. Unable to pay the $5,000 bail, she spent eight months in jail before her trial. Andrea was sentenced to two years deferred probation, 100 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $50 a month probation fee, and fined $2,100 in court fees.

“In some ways it was better than living with my grandfather. I had nowhere to go after I got out of jail, so I moved into the Salvation Army Shelter in Denton, spending nights there, looking for work in the daytime.”

The shelter was clean and well maintained with separate facilities for men and for women. Clients check in at 5pm and have to be out by 7 the next morning. They sleep on sturdy bunk beds. Up to 75 are served dinner and up to 35 get breakfast. Andrea met with a social worker at the shelter who assessed her needs and recommended further assistance.

The average stay at the shelter is six weeks, but Andrea lived at the Salvation Army Shelter three months.

She moved out of the shelter to share an apartment with Zach, who had a job. Working part time in retail. Andrea finished her GED and enrolled in college.

“I did well with my classes,” says Andrea. “For the first time in my life, I was making my

own decisions. I felt in control.”

Still just scraping by financially. She and Zach were falling in love but staying out of

trouble. Then she got pregnant.

“Zach couldn’t handle it and left, “ says Andrea. But Zach did promise to support her and their baby. Leah Rose arrived in the early morning of January 22, 2014. She was full term but small, weighing five pounds three ounces.

“I was freakin’ out, but she was perfectly healthy.”

Looking at her daughter now, wearing pink and blue, head to toe, she lowers an eye-dropper full of medicine over Leah’s mouth. Three drops go in to help with a cough she just got a few days ago. It also helps her stay less fussy and get to sleep easier. Sucking from a full bottle, Leah is beginning to doze off. Andrea puts her to bed, then steps outside for a quiet smoke.

“Ever since he (Zach) came back three days ago, it’s been kinda tense,” she says, exhaling. “There’s a lot of mistrust (she doesn’t explain).”

Zach had been living with friends, but when he saw Leah, he decided he would move back with Andrea and help take care of Leah.

“Both of us have been really hurt. But at least he’s paying child support now. Don’t know for how long. I set the house rules,” she says.

Andrea says she loves Zach and that is why he can come and go in her life. A couple minutes pass, then flicking her finished cigarette into the alley, she heads back inside to prepare Zach’s lunch before he goes to work.

“Ham sandwich okay?” “Sure, but no mayo this time, ok?”

Andrea is thinking, my lease is up next month and I don’t know where we’ll live if I can’t get enough money to stay here.

“I’ve got some Cheetos and an apple, ok?” “I guess so if that’s all you’ve got.” That’s it, take it or leave it!” She stuffs everything into a plastic bag and hands it to Zach, who says goodbye and walks out the door.

Andrea collapses on the couch, head tossed back, looking at the ceiling, her eyes are closed. Mandy sits in Zach’s chair, looking at her sister.

“Andy is so strong,” says Mandy. “She has been through so much. I just love Leah.”

“Wish I could’ve breast fed her for more than a month,” Andrea says. “She was so hungry, so tiny. Leah wasn’t getting enough food, not gaining enough weight.” “She’s healthy,” says Mandy, “you did a great job, just look at her. I remember when she was born.”

When Mandy leaves, Leah is still asleep. The sisters hug, go outside where it’s still raining. Amanda watches Mandy drive away. She smiles, thinking, thank God I’ve got her around.

Back inside, it’s quiet. Andrea pulls her long hair back behind her head, ties it with a pink rubber band. She sits on the sofa, knowing Leah will be waking up soon. Zach will be gone for several hours. Her life is like an iceberg, 90 percent of what has happened to her, mostly bad stuff, is hidden, never seen from the outside. The 10 percent that you do see is good. She can smile, laugh, and have fun. Andrea seems like a normal young mother.

“If it wasn’t for Leah this would all be a lot harder,” she says. “I’m so focused on her that the rest of this stuff takes a backseat. I need to find work to support us. It will happen, someday.”

Andrea finishes her probation this summer. She still owes $300 in fees and 25 hours of community service. And she has $2,200 in college loans to pay off.

In the meantime, the gentle rain outside is soothing. She closes her eyes and dreams of a life she’s never known, a life she hopes to provide for Leah, and maybe Zach too. There’s a house and a yard, and probably a cat or two. No dogs!

One of the ways Andrea stays optimistic is by taking advantage of the free services of Denton-area non-profits.

“Sometimes I can’t get help from the state,” she says, “because I work part time. It’s like if you lay around all day and do nothing, then they’ll help.” Andrea thinks, I need to go to the Woman-to-Woman Resource Center soon to take some free parenting and relationship classes. Attendance in those classes can result in free vouchers for diapers, baby formula, and birth control pills, which she desperately needs.

Some unseen force in her ragged background keeps her on the straight-and-narrow. She credits her dad, who did repairs on cars, paint and body, was a mechanic and good with computers. Andrea says he insisted that they get good grades and do well in school.

“Dad gave us $5 for every A we got in school, $3 for a B, and $1 for a C,” she said. “If you failed a class, you owed dad money.” It was instilled in her and Mandy early on that you needed to pay your way in life.

“You get money quick, you lose it quick,” she says. “If you don’t appreciate it (money), you don’t keep it.”

As kids, she and Mandy, ages 6 and 7, would sell their stuffed toys door-to-door to earn enough money to buy a fish for their small fishbowl.

“It was kind of like a moving garage sale, “ she says.

She and Mandy raked leaves to earn money too. Andrea remembers her mom always yelling at them, “you cotton pickin’ kids.”

“We were never good enough for her (Mom),” she says.

The teen years were the toughest on the girls. Foster homes became a new form of prison. “I was tired of getting hit,” Andrea says, “my head slammed into the ground. For doing what? They were monsters.” That’s how she and Mandy ended up living with their grandfather. The situation grew much worse.

“I tried to lock myself in my room,” she remembers, “but he had a key. I kept a knife under my bed. One time I said, ‘hit me one more time, I dare you.’ ”

The cops came and took both girls away. Later they were split up again and sent to foster homes. Nothing happened to their grandfather. No charges were ever filed.

“I just wanted to forget that it ever happened,” says Andrea. “Besides, who would believe me?”

Ten years removed from that nightmare, Andrea tries to be optimistic about the future for her and Leah. It takes all of her effort some days to keep keeping on.

No one has the answers. Life just has to get better, she thinks. “It has to,” says Andrea, “but when?”

“Waaahhh” comes from the bedroom. It’s Leah waking up. “Time to get going,” says Andrea. “My little girl needs me, and I need her, more than she may ever know.”

The day before Easter, with no fulltime job in sight, Andrea volunteered at the Denton Easter Egg’stravaganza at the downtown Civic Center and Quakertown Park, which included a magic show and Easter egg hunts by age group.

“I didn’t want to sit at home one Easter, “ says Andrea, “ I wanted to be around people. But I had to get a friend to watch Leah, “ she says.

Andrea was in charge of the two and under kids. 150-200 turned out. She spent a couple hours unpacking boxes of plastic eggs and candy, and bright pennant flags to mark her area.

“It’s something I really enjoyed,” says Andrea. “Next year I plan to take Leah.”

By the time Leah’s old enough to know what’s going on in her family, Andrea hopes to be working full time and maybe finish college; for Leah to never know how hard it was on Andrea when Leah was just a baby. If Zach’s still around, that’s good too, but she’s not counting on that happening.

“I love Zach, he loves Leah, “ she says, “but I’m not sure he loves me.”

What most of us take for granted, Andrea struggles with; the daily challenge of paying for the basics, enough to simply survive; to not always have to worry about money. A normal life is all she asks, for herself and for Leah. It would be a first for both of them. She hopes to move to Dallas someday soon, where she thinks there will be more opportunities jobs she might really like. Andrea dreams of possibly getting a job in fashion, as a buyer, perhaps at the Dallas Apparel Mart. When finances become more stable, she and Zach would like to move closer to Dallas, where they feel there are more jobs available.

She grew up immersed in a world of pain and suffering, orchestrated by family members who were supposed to provide love and understanding. “I know the dark side of life,” she says.

Now, looking into Leah’s big, brown eyes, Andrea also knows another side of life. Hope, trust, loving care. A foundation for a brighter future she feels she deserves.

She has just applied for a full time job at an Olive Garden Restaurant in Denton.

“My life is a puzzle,” says Andrea, “I’m just trying to put the pieces together.”

[1] 51.5% families with female householder, no husband present, with related children under 5 years, U.S.

Census American Community Survey, Denton County, 2006-2010.

[2] United Way of Denton County, 2013.

[3] The National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2014.

[4] The National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2014.

[1] United Way of Denton County, $11,000 per year for a single mother.

[1] Includes rent, utilities, gas, car insurance, internet, cell phone, diapers, clothes, food, and credit card.

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