It was the mid-’90s in Chicago. My family was walking to my elementary school for a quarterly awards ceremony celebrating students who made the honor roll. I was wearing one of two pairs of clothes I owned and remember my dad running to us holding a floral button-up and olive slacks. They were fancier than anything I’d ever worn, and I can still hear his voice asking, “How do you like this?”
It was my first time receiving an award and my dad was beaming with pride.
I remember the nights our family rejoiced when my dad was finally paid for his contract jobs. We’d order a huge pizza, and I would feel the fleeting warmth of my mom and dad displaying simultaneous joy. It was a rare escape from the anxiety that comes with being poor.
My school was filled with kids like me and my sisters, first-generation with parents struggling to get by. I’ve always been blessed with an analytical mind. But more importantly, I had the undying perseverance of immigrant parents who fought for the value of education from my youngest memories. This shielded me from more difficult outcomes in life.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that stability at home is a determinant of success in the classroom.
Working in local politics today, I am reminded daily of the rampant housing insecurity in San Antonio. I think about the children sitting in parking lots looking for Wi-Fi to complete assignments. I think about the one in four adults who are functionally illiterate. I wonder if simply being “smart” would cut it here.
I imagine my family being in the same position, and I am filled with a quiet rage. Quiet because I’ve been tempered by poverty-induced trauma since childhood. Rage because I finally know who to blame.
Ours is not a crisis of communal falta de ganas. It is the product of a lack of political will.
When COVID-19 hit San Antonio, we received over $200 million from the federal government for immediate relief. Logic would dictate most resources should go to the greatest need – especially in a city that strived to adopt an equity budget.
Seeing as an average of 33 San Antonio families were evicted each day in 2019, we have a definite need for housing relief funding. Yet housing received far less than half of that funding. In the most economically segregated city in the country, direct aid for food and necessities should have also been a priority. But the viral photo of cars lined up for our foodbank distribution event told us loud and clear that we had underfunded families in need.
So where did the money go?
The lion’s share of funding in the City’s $191 million COVID-19 response and recovery plan went toward a workforce development initiative that will help at most 20,000 residents over the course of one year with job and skills training. In a city of nearly 2 million residents, how can a program that will impact just 1% of our residents be seen as a mechanism for direct relief from the pandemic?
The missing variable in the city’s equation is families who are unable to take advantage of the program. Families who now have just scraps of support available to them from the funding originally meant for their survival.
I can’t help but think of the children forced to live my own past experience – sitting on the floor, amazed at my mom’s ability to devise miracles to pay owed rent and avoid eviction. At the age of 8.
I find the irony overwhelming. We are providing job training for 20,000 residents while robbing the potential of thousands of our youth by failing to help stabilize their homes. But our city has made a habit of ignoring people that have no recourse of action.
On the same day that the mayor and 5 of 10 council members voted in favor of moving $3 million out of our emergency housing assistance fund, the city touted receiving $46.7 million from the federal government for emergency rental assistance. What officials failed to mention was that federal funds come with federal restrictions: undocumented residents, convicted felons, residents who didn’t file taxes, and many more are ineligible for federal aid. That leaves thousands of our most vulnerable out in the cold.
And sometimes, literally out in the cold as we’ve seen during the winter storm of 2021.
The inequitable allocation of funds has led to families being evicted and forced onto the streets. The homeless encampment at the Interstate 37 underpass at Brooklyn Street did not exist before the pandemic. That means many of the people living in those tents were newly homeless and failed by the City’s inadequate housing relief fund.
Again, I can’t help but think back to a period in my family’s life when we faced homelessness. I think back to how hard my mom and dad worked and still struggled to place a roof over our heads.
If my family lived in present-day San Antonio during that period of our lives, I doubt I would have been awarded a certificate for highest honors in the fourth grade. I never would have felt the pride of putting on that outfit purchased with the sweat of my father, the perseverance of my mother, and earned through academic opportunity.
If I were a child in San Antonio today, I would likely be filled with rage – but not quiet. Because an F grade means room to grow for a child. But an F grade means lives lost when it comes to our city’s lack of equity, foresight, and compassion.