Night fell over Dallas and Lily de la Cruz was searching for a parking space for her 2013 Yukon SUV to spend the night.
It was Thanksgiving 2020. She had bought burgers and fries for her six children and the family had their Thanksgiving dinner in silence.
They had been sleeping for 25 days in their SUV after they left a two-bedroom apartment in Far North Dallas, in Dallas County, that they couldn’t afford anymore.
The streets were their home for 45 days.
De la Cruz had no permanent job and in recent months, she had divorced her second husband after years of enduring domestic violence, she said.
At 41, she has three children from her most immediate husband: Ana Luisa, 7; Julián, 6; and Carlos, 5; plus two from a previous marriage — Luis, 17, and Mariana, 16 — and another son, Oscar, 11.
Before the pandemic, De la Cruz supported her family by selling plants and ornaments for offices. Her then-husband helped to pay the rent.
The arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 withered not only her plant business but also her dreams for the future.
Without a job and steady income, and now without the support of her former husband — she is fighting in courts to get child support — De la Cruz and her children in November left their Far North Dallas apartment in which they had lived for less than a year.
For the next 45 days, they would sleep on the streets.
“It was very sad times … the kind of times you wished you and your children could forget,” said De la Cruz, originally from Tapachula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Although there are no formal statistics to measure how many people are in the same situation as De la Cruz, it is estimated that thousands of North Texans wake up every day not knowing if they’ll have a roof over their heads in the days to come.
While homelessness is an issue toward which local authorities channel attention and resources, fair housing advocates say housing insecurity is an often overlooked issue that will continue to grow, as the gap between average income levels and housing prices gets wider.
According to the Household Pulse Survey, which the U.S. Census Bureau has been taking periodically during the pandemic, 470,109 people in Texas said they were fearful of being evicted from their homes as of Aug. 2. Of those surveyed, 70,725 live in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area.
The census data shows the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Hispanic and Black renters in Texas. About 40% said they were uncertain about whether they would be able to pay the next month’s rent.
Patchwork of living spaces
Although not technically homeless, families like the De La Cruzes hopscotch from short-term rentals to living with other family members to living in their vehicles.
When the SUV was their home, the De La Cruz family placed cushions on the floor to sleep every night.
The youngest slept in the back. The eldest slept sitting in the two front seats.
At nightfall, they searched for a place to park. Sometimes they slept outside grocery stores or in backstreets. The family bathed at a gym using the eldest son’s membership.
And during the winter months, the family would spend most of the day inside a heated storage unit they had rented.
“The U.S. is the land of opportunity and you can succeed,” De la Cruz said. “But some things escape your control, and if something goes wrong, everything goes to hell.”
Thanks to food stamps, she and her family haven’t been left without food.
What little money comes into her pocket almost immediately goes out. Another concern is to make the $710-a-month payment for her vehicle, the place this family called home, also become a classroom.
“I didn’t want to send them to school for fear of them getting sick. I preferred having them here with me so I could take care of them,” De La Cruz said. “Two of my kids have health problems, so nobody would take care of them like me.”
Her six children logged on to class every day from the tablets and hotspots their schools provided.
“One of my children’s teachers found out we had no home, because you could see what was in the background,” she said. “They contacted me and told me they would help me.”
A caseworker talked to her and put the family in a hotel. Days later, she got them an apartment for which the family had to pay more than $800 a month for rent, which was in addition to the $710 monthly payment for the vehicle — which, if not paid, the seller could remotely block, making it impossible to start, so they would get stranded.
Her oldest son, Luis, worked at various jobs for months to save money to go to college at Texas State University in San Marcos. He left this summer.
Her daughter Mariana, a magnet high school student, lost her school year to help her mother during the hardest time of the crisis, but is now resuming her studies and has already started working.
“I studied a few semesters at the university in Mexico and that is why I always encourage my children to study,” said De la Cruz. “That is why this situation hurts me even more.”
After facing problems of violence and threats where they are living, in September the family will move to a new apartment. De la Cruz is trying to sell all her plants and decor to raise $2,500 to pay the deposit and the first month’s rent.
Lily de la Cruz opened a GoFundMe where she is raising funds to pay the rent for her new home, which the whole family hopes will be a new beginning.
Even though she spent several months with the security of having a place to live, now De la Cruz struggles every day to avoid returning to sleep with her six children on the Dallas streets.
To pay her bills, De la Cruz and her family browse Facebook looking for used furniture that people give away or that she can buy at a modest price, and then resell it to get a few dollars to pay her $850 monthly rent and the $710 car payment for her SUV, plus pay for gas and other expenses.
De la Cruz also began to grow some plants, trying to relaunch her business.
“Finding a job where I have to go is not an option, because I have to take care of my children,” said De la Cruz.
One of her sons is on the autism spectrum and receives therapy, while another had head surgery days after birth and still has some sequelae.
Despite having two or three jobs to pay their bills, thousands in Texas face the uncertainty of whether they will have a guaranteed place to live.
According to the Out of Reach 2021 report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker in Texas must make at least $21.98 an hour to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
If they earn minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — they would have to work 121 hours a week — five days and nights — to be able to pay for that housing unit.
In Dallas County, a person must earn $26 per hour to be able to afford such housing.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, a Dallas County couple with no children must earn $24.12 an hour to meet expenses with one adult working. If they have two children, the requirement is $32.41.
“There aren’t enough affordable homes which low-income families can pay for,” said Christina Rosales, deputy director of Texas Housers, a nonprofit focused on housing for low-income people.
“That means they live at the limit of their finances, and with anything going wrong — a medical expense, or a broken car — they won’t be able to pay their rent for one, two or three months.”
In response to the pandemic, the federal government allocated $25 billion in rent aid to states, counties and cities for renters and landlords.
Texas received $1.3 billion, of which $665.6 million had been paid to 108,927 households for rent and utility expenses as of Aug. 12.
Dallas County has paid just over $102 million to 16,231 households, while the city of Dallas has distributed $14 million.
But rent relief can be hard to get.
Because De La Cruz doesn’t have legal status in the country and no formal job, she doesn’t have pay slips to qualify for rent relief.
“We never thought we would be in this situation, and really, there have been times when I have even thought of taking my life,” said De la Cruz, who is being treated for depression.
Lenita Dunlap, an activist and community leader who has worked with nongovernment organizations in Dallas, said the crisis of people who become homeless would be unrelenting without the federal eviction moratorium, which the Supreme Court struck down Thursday.
Dunlap said public policy hasn’t been focused on preserving the well-being of ordinary people.
“This tragedy could have been avoided,” Dunlap said.
Lily de la Cruz is hopeful that she and her family will find a way to get back on their feet.
Note: This article is part of our State of the City project, in which The Dallas Morning News explores the most critical issues facing our communities. Find more topics in coming days as we examine the issue of homelessness.