Michelle Estrada nervously wraps a black cardigan around her small frame. In her left-hand pocket are a brown bifold wallet and cellphone. She wears skinny jeans and strappy sandals and talks of how her 1-year-old daughter is finally learning to crawl.

Estrada is among the thousands in San Antonio who grew up disconnected from opportunity – leading to a cycle of poverty that has perpetuated through generations.

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.

Following in the footsteps of her mother and most of her 12 siblings, Estrada dropped out of high school early because she didn’t like it. Since age 19, she has worked a string of commercial housekeeping jobs, like her mother, quitting or getting laid off as the circumstances of her life and the economy ebbed and flowed. Now 26, she has three children of her own.

Estrada’s situation was precarious even before the coronavirus outbreak froze many people in place, leaving them without jobs, child care, or reliable food sources.

Last fall, Child Protective Services (CPS) removed her children because of concerns they were left unsupervised. Though she worked to regain custody, started a new job in February, and recently bought a car with tax-refund money, Estrada still has no savings account, no diploma or degree or job training, or a supportive spouse with a steady income.

Though pragmatic and resilient, Estrada faces the consequences of past decisions and an uphill battle to make different choices for her future – which could get steeper as the economy worsens. While some of her challenges are common to those in poverty, others are unique, creating a complex array of needs that cannot be tackled easily, even by the many organizations working locally to address economic disparity.

Poverty Tax

“Poverty is complicated,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. “Sometimes these policies, at a high level, seem to make sense but, at a real-life level, don’t add up.”

In addition to what he calls a “poverty tax” – low-income people being forced to pay more for groceries because their transportation options limit their shopping choices – there’s a thin margin of financial security for those with limited assets. “It doesn’t take a lot to sometimes push someone off the [financial] cliff,” Cooper said.

The constant financial upheaval can lead to trauma, “which makes it tough to do even the simplest things,” he added.

Complicating matters are the often burdensome requirements needed to access social services, which include complex paperwork, a lengthy set of documents needed for verification, and access to a cellphone or computer to print and file it all.

Coping well with the demands of everyday life often has little to do with a lack of work ethic.

“In the sense of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, I oftentimes see people that in a lot of ways are working harder than many of us – waking up early to catch a bus and drop kids off, doing physical work for their employer that probably wears them out, physically and mentally,” Cooper said.

“The resilience of individuals that have had a lived experience with poverty is really inspiring.”

An Attempt at Education Derailed

Estrada’s mother, Bertha Gonzalez, was 14 years old when she got married and 15 when she had her first child, a daughter named Heather. After her brief marriage was cut short by a shooting that left her husband dead, she met another man. Together, they had 13 more children; a son died in infancy.

While raising her children, Gonzalez lived with family members – and at one time in a homeless shelter. Of Gonzalez’s children, only Heather graduated from high school. Two others earned a general educational development (GED) certificate.

Estrada made an attempt to earn her GED while pregnant with her second child but had to drop out to pick up overtime hours to afford her rent. She talks of the situation with regret.

Gonzalez, who is 47, sometimes works as a housekeeper and other times stays home to serve as a full-time caregiver for her children’s father, who can no longer work due to cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver frequently caused by alcoholism. Her two youngest children, now teenagers, are still at home, and Gonzalez also helps care for some of her 14 grandchildren.

After Estrada’s three children were removed by CPS last fall, then returned two weeks later, Gonzalez stepped in to help monitor her daughter when she was with her children, as mandated by CPS. Gonzalez also attended court-ordered parenting classes with Estrada, a course they completed in December.

During the time Estrada’s children were in foster care, she lost some of her nutrition assistance program benefits. It took several more weeks, and bus trips to the San Antonio Food Bank, to reinstate the benefits when the kids returned home.

Since then, Estrada has been working to comply with other requirements of her CPS service plan, such as counseling and taking the two youngest children to day care, despite the fact she would prefer to care for them herself.

Before schools were closed in the wake of the coronavirus, Estrada awoke at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays to get herself and the children dressed and catch a bus together so her oldest could make it to school in time to get breakfast. It’s an hourlong ride she often paid for with bus tickets provided by the Family Service Association (FSA).

Estrada typically spent those days applying for jobs, meeting with a mental health counselor, her caseworker, and her attorney, and responding to their calls. Her phone is a lifeline, but sometimes those calls come during brief periods when it has been disconnected for nonpayment, causing more friction in her day-to-day life.

Her sons’ father also calls, wanting visits with the boys. But he does not help support them financially and he’s not complying with the requirements of her CPS plan, she said.

Estrada admits frustration, and she hopes to one day have a life resembling that of her best friend, who is happily married and staying home to care for her children while her spouse works to support the family. Except she wants to support her family on her own, she said, and holding down a job will allow her to take those steps.

A social worker at FSA is encouraging her to enroll in a GED program and get job training. For now, though, she lives day-to-day, confronting frustrations and setbacks in stride, meeting basic needs only, often with the help of social services.

Front Lines of Poverty

One such organization helping people with their basic and immediate needs is Christian Assistance Ministries (CAM), whose leader says that kind of support is just as important as the work of policymakers working on the systemic issues to address poverty.

“[You can’t] say that helping people day-to-day is no longer important [unless] we’re helping them to change their lives,” said Dawn White-Fosdick, CAM executive director. “Because there are some people for whom changing their lives may not be possible. And they still need our help.”

While CAM tries to connect its clients with other service providers who can help with long-term needs, White-Fosdick says CAM focuses its efforts on the front lines of poverty, providing basic needs every day.

In a city like San Antonio, the job can be overwhelming even when the economy is good.

“I don’t have time to stick my head up and resolve the systemic issue, because I’ve got my finger over the hole in the boat that’s sinking,” she said, referring to people who are on the brink of homelessness or some other economic disaster. “We can’t just only talk about transformation [of the system] without treatment.”

Christian Assistance Ministry Executive Director Dawn White-Fosdick.
Christian Assistance Ministry Executive Director Dawn White-Fosdick Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Individual Attention Matters

In late 2019, Estrada completed court-mandated parent education classes at the Neighborhood Place, a Westside service site for the Family Service Association. She has not enrolled in any of the other FSA programs recommended to her, such as education and workforce training.

Only about 20 percent of participants in the program’s parenting classes take advantage of other services that are designed to help them become financially independent, said Mylinda Swierc, FSA’s senior vice president.

Following through with each client and measuring the impact of their programs is challenging for an organization that provides services from teen pregnancy to senior needs, all while complying with the requirements of its 60 different contracts with various governmental entities.

What the FSA caseworkers know for certain, based on years of experience, Swierc said, is that the clients who are more likely to follow through on the services they recommend are the ones who are getting individual attention.

“It’s about building trust and that someone is truly hearing what their needs are,” she added, especially because getting that kind of support isn’t always easy.

“The systems are complex in communities like this, and it’s hard for our families to navigate transportation and filling out one of these intake forms at 10 different organizations in San Antonio,” Swierc said. “So we’re also trying to work in our community on how we standardize that so that we’re not retraumatizing our families.”

Often, families seeking social services and assistance end up having to tell the wrenching stories of their circumstances multiple times to people at multiple agencies and nonprofits. In San Antonio, those obstacles can be complicated for some clients who worry they might jeopardize an immigration case or get in trouble with another agency, such as CPS, if they seek help.

“There’s a lot of fear that we deal with every day … and the systems that are involved – with law enforcement and Child Protective Services, which are all needed – but it makes it hard for families to really want to disclose much,” Swierc said.

That, in turn, makes it more difficult to provide people what they need or even get them to advocate for themselves. “That’s why we have to stem those tides, and the earlier we get to kids, the better, to break the generational” cycle of poverty, she added.

Estrada started her new housekeeping job at a nursing home, working alongside her mother, at the end of February. The demands are even greater now that the facility is working to keep COVID-19 at bay and Estrada’s hours were increased to full-time. Like others, she’s having a hard time finding eggs and milk for her children.

But the public health crisis, the extra hours, and grueling work haven’t dismayed her.

She gets paid $8 an hour in biweekly paychecks and one of the nursing home staffers is going to help her become a certified nursing assistant.

“It’s a start,” she said.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.