- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

SAN MARCOS, Texas (AP) - Anthony Patlan and Benito Trevino, homeless men in San Marcos, are working odd jobs to save money so that, between the two of them, they can get an apartment.

“We help each other,” Trevino, 50, told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/1sMUUp1). “That’s how we survive,” Patlan, 53, added.

But they have been able to find work in construction or repairs only about twice a week. Both had steady jobs in the past, but regaining full-time employment has eluded them for years.

Although their stories are complicated by homelessness and criminal records, Patlan and Trevino are far from alone in their struggle to find quality jobs in a city that, by many indicators, should be a boom town.

The Census Bureau has named San Marcos the country’s fastest-growing city the past two years, and the unemployment rate is lower than the state’s.

But the benefits of the enormous growth have not trickled down to many of the city’s poorer residents, about 36 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line, compared with 17.4 percent statewide.

San Marcos’ poverty rate is probably exaggerated by Texas State University students who live off-campus and have little or no income, but other measures indicate that many families are struggling to get by. For example, 72 percent of San Marcos school district students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches last year.

“It’s gotten much worse, instead of better,” said Ruben Garza, president of the nonprofit Southside Community Center, which runs a homeless shelter and fixes homes for low-income residents. “And yes, there’s been a lot of growth, but it hasn’t been the kind of growth that supplies jobs and the means for people to sustain themselves - or at least local people.”

The San Marcos economy is dominated by businesses that cater to Texas State students and retail employment at the outlet mall. Experts say those sectors provide ample jobs, but not high-paying or stable ones.

Texas State sociologist Chad Smith, who has studied poverty, said San Marcos has “an underlying structural inequality problem.”

“Most of the economy is a service economy. It’s driven by the kinds of jobs that would lend themselves to college students or people living on the margins,” Smith said. “There’s not the kinds of good-paying jobs that are going to lift people out of poverty.”

Poverty in San Marcos does not appear to be concentrated among racial minorities, as it is in many cities, according to the city’s 2014 action plan for the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

“An estimated 49.4 percent of White households, 35 percent of African-American households and 45.2 percent of Hispanic households have incomes of less than $25,000,” the plan said. Still, minorities face additional obstacles such as lower educational attainment rates and greater poverty among young children, the plan said.

San Marcos is about 40 percent non-Hispanic white, 38 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black, according to the 2010 census.

Janis Hendrix, the city’s community initiatives administrator, manages San Marcos’ $490,000 in funding from the community block grant, a federal anti-poverty program established under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The city allocates another $400,000 to anti-poverty programs.

One of the greatest hardships facing the city’s poor is affordable housing, Hendrix said.

“Just like in Austin, housing costs are increasing, and that’s impacting our lower-income residents,” she said.

Much of the recent residential development has been in apartments and multifamily buildings, she said. About two-thirds of residents are renters, and many who own their homes cannot maintain them, leading to a deteriorating housing stock and poor living conditions, the action plan says.

San Marcos uses $100,000 of the community block grant funds to pay the Southside Community Center to rehabilitate seven houses per year. Other nonprofit-run programs that receive funding include $10,000 to the United Way for tutoring and mentoring, $25,000 to Court Appointed Special Advocates to represent children in court and $25,000 to the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center to support its family violence shelter.

The biggest allocation is $197,000 for improvements to the Veterans Park, which is in a poor neighborhood. Another $97,000 this year goes to administration and oversight.

The city recently has increased community block grant funding for programs and services, instead of using the money almost entirely on brick-and-mortar projects, said Michelle Harper, CEO of the United Way of Hays County.

Harper said the recession and federal cutbacks have hurt local nonprofits’ ability to provide services. She hopes the city will increase the $400,000 it allocates for anti-poverty efforts.

“As our city grows and more taxes come in and the city has more to spend, that would be great to see that number increase,” Harper said.

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero said the city is trying to recruit employers in the manufacturing and materials sectors who will provide better jobs.

“When you think of San Marcos, you certainly think of the service industry, you think of retail, and we’re trying to diversify that significantly,” Guerrero said. “We want to change the perception of San Marcos as being impoverished.”

He pointed to Texas State’s 2-year-old Science, Technology and Advanced Research Park. The 38-acre campus, which is adding 20 acres, is an incubator for nanotechnology and advanced material startups that, officials hope, will employ San Marcans.

Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said Texas State, which has 35,500 students and is growing rapidly, is crucial to the city’s goal of overcoming poverty.

Conley, who represents part of San Marcos, is chairman of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, a public-private chamber of commerce that recruits business to the area. The partnership, Conley said, is getting interest from higher-quality employers than it did when it started five years ago.

“We have more of a reach than we’ve had before, nationally and internationally, in this community,” he said. “I really feel optimistic that if we continue down this path, we’ll be able to break that cycle (of poverty) and have an environment where we can have a sustainable middle class.”


Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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