North Texas Daily

Sanger: A look at small town poverty

Sanger: A look at small town poverty

Sanger: A look at small town poverty
April 29
01:26 2014

Ian Pribanic // Contributing Writer

Like a scene from a 1930s movie, the railroad tracks in Sanger, Texas, a town of 7,000, 12 miles north of Denton, separates rich from poor, haves from have-nots. On the east side of the tracks sit upscale neighborhoods complete with two-car garages for luxury automobiles, spacious backyards for trampolines and swimming pools.

On the west side are old weatherworn homes that lie strewn about and in need of repair. The paint is peeling, windows are broken and trash covers the yards. Holes dot foundations and shades of faded blue, pink and yellow siding cover the walls. Piles of junk fill the driveways and once bright cars display shades of rust.

Not far in downtown Sanger sits an old building in something of a holy triangle. Three separate churches within a hundred yards of each other surround the old building, home to the Sanger Crisis Center and the heartbeat for individuals in need.

For many Sanger residents from the west side of the tracks, the crisis center is a source of hope, three days a week for three and half hours on each of those days.

In Sanger, a town with a poverty rate of 19.5 percent, this is one place where people who have no or low income can seek refuge. Whether it’s the single father of five who just lost his job or a homeless couple living out of their car, the center is the one place where adult residents of Sanger can turn.

“If someone’s coming in with a hardship like a lack of food and other necessities, if we can help them we’ll go ahead and give that to them,” said Sanger Crisis Center volunteer Sylvia Perez. “Whether it’s food, clothes or household items, we try to help alleviate some of the burden.”

Poverty in a small town like Sanger is different than poverty in larger, more urban areas. Access to government programs like food stamps, Section 8 housing and homeless shelters is limited.

There’s also a shortage of charitable programs like food pantries, and quality employment opportunities are virtually non-existent. The last major corporate-owned facility to open in Sanger was a Wal-Mart distribution plant more than a decade ago.

Small rural towns like Sanger also lack a public transportation system that could provide low-income individuals a means of accessing non-local charitable and employment opportunities. And with only one caseworker in the entire town, the chances of getting personal attention, even for the most vulnerable, seems negligible.

The lone caseworker

Down the road from the crisis center there’s another red brick building, home to the Sanger Education Foundation, which provides school-aged children with daily meals and necessary school supplies. Tucked inside this building is the office of Valerie Foster.

Foster, who works for the nonprofit, is Sanger’s lone caseworker, but she does her best to help low-income residents access available government resources like food stamps and unemployment benefits. She also directs people to the Sanger Crisis Center and organizations such as the United Way in Denton, but she acknowledges tapping those resources for low-income individuals is a cumbersome process.

“Resources anywhere are limited and added to that is the challenge of trying to access those resources in a rural setting,” Foster said.

The Denton County Transit Authority (DCTA) is the only real option for low-income residents of Denton County who don’t own or have access to a car but still want to reach a place of employment, or food, housing or some other form of assistance. But the DCTA doesn’t offer bus or train services north of Denton, severely limiting transportation options in rural cities like Sanger, Krum and Pilot Point.

Many Sanger residents living in poverty are single parents with children, Foster said. They’re folks who live “doubled-up” with other family members or who live in motels for extended periods of time.

Affordable housing (Section 8) for Sanger residents hasn’t increased in years, she explained, and Denton County as a whole has a limited number of shelters for families with housing issues.

Even if outside opportunities for help or better employment exist, the disconnect from larger cities is the underlying issue residents of smaller, rural towns like Sanger must contend with.

“The question is, how can they access them? How will they find transportation? Who will care for their child? Where will they live? All of these affect people’s ability to access those jobs and resources,” Foster said.

Rachelle Miller considers herself one of the lucky ones. A single mom, she lived in Section 8 housing until earlier this year when her parents made room for her and her daughter in their Sanger home.

Miller was able to find a good job with Lewisville Independent School District but could only take it because her father is employed nearby and agreed to drive her back and forth to work each day.  She doesn’t own a car because she can’t afford the payments—not when her bill for childcare alone costs $500 a month.

“If I didn’t have the access to the transportation that I do, I would be among the many people in Sanger forced to walk to work every day and work in town for a lesser paying job that I am well over qualified for,” Miller said.  “Having no private transportation and a lack of public transportation makes many low-income people not even want to seek help.”

Stories vary greatly as to how people wind up in poverty, Foster said. Some people may be born into it, others have moved to Sanger in search of employment only to find low-paying jobs available and others have suffered from life-altering changes like job loss and severe health issues.

“There’s not really one indicator as to how people wind up in this situation,” Foster said. “You can do all kinds of studies, but a lot of these are families living paycheck to paycheck who suffer one catastrophic event and that throws them into poverty.”

The center of hope

Early in the afternoon on a frigid Monday in February, a line forms at the Sanger Crisis Center’s doors long before they open. People from all walks of life, men and women, young and old, many shopping for their children, patiently wait, bundled in their winter coats. Glimmers of hope shine through the locked glass doors in the form of new clothes, shoes without holes and bags full of food.

The center is the only operation in town, in large part because major organizations such as the North Texas Food Bank and the United Way of Denton focus on areas with more significant numbers of people in need of assistance. The city of Denton, like Sanger, also has a poverty rate of 19.5 percent and the city of Dallas has about 260,000 residents living in poverty.

Even though its resources are stretched thin, the center does provide a great deal of help to low-income Sanger residents. Its food pantry and bargain clothing areas offer free food and clothing on a need-by-need basis. Every Monday, the center offers free bread and other food donated by local businesses like the Wal-Mart distribution center and Super Save grocery store.

“A lot of people actually walk here,” Perez said. “They come to pick up food and it’s either on a bike or they walk, and we try to make it easier by boxing food up or providing recyclable bags to carry groceries.”

Ultimately, the center’s biggest challenge is its lack of resources. It makes some money selling clothes at bargain prices to those who can afford them, and the local churches and Boy Scout troops often have food drives that collect items for the center, said Perez. But, its own tight budget restricts the center’s ability to provide significant help with taxes, utilities and other bills to only once for each family.

“We’ve been put in a situation where there’s just too many people to help over and over again,” she said. “We stress that we’ll help them in a one-time crisis situation, but [then] they need to reach out for long-term help via food stamps, unemployment, welfare or any kind they can get.”

Many families are forced to sacrifice even basic necessities, Perez said. They make cuts when and where they can and one of the first sacrifices many families make is trying to eat as cheap as possible.

Families focus more on cheaper foods like potatoes, beans and rice, she said, and young children in these situations are often lacking required staples like fruits and green vegetables.

“You can tell when children aren’t being nourished correctly, and it’s really sad to see it but that’s all they have to eat,” Perez said. “In the end though, it’s what keeps them from starving, and it’s sad that this has to happen in America. It’s not supposed to happen here. But it does.”

Feature photo: Downtown Sanger, Texas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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