By Alan Prendergast
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It was like landing on the moon. The thought ricocheted through Joleena Malugani's mind as she took in the vast, dusty expanse of the corner of West Texas claimed by Midland and Odessa. Malugani was fresh out of college when she came across an Ector County Independent School District booth at a job fair in Oregon. The recruiter mentioned that there was an oil boom going on in the area and that the district needed teachers. Malugani was in a state with one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, her student loans would soon be due, and she needed a job.
Raised on the West Coast, she'd never been to Texas. It would be an adventure, she thought. In August 2012, she lined up an apartment, packed what she could fit in her car, and drove more than 1,600 miles for a teaching job in the middle of West Texas. The blazing lights of oil rigs and the guttering flames of natural-gas flares blotted out the stars long before she pulled into town.
Odessa, Texas, sits on top of the Permian Basin, an oil-rich region 250 miles wide and 300 miles long that stretches across West Texas and up into New Mexico. Odessa and its sister city, Midland, went from being wide spots in the road to actual towns when oil was discovered almost a century ago. The wells came in big, and Permian production was the highest in the country for decades.
In recent years, common wisdom held that the Permian Basin's best days were behind it, along with most of Texas oil. That was before the shale boom erupted. Fracking in Barnett in north Texas, the Eagle Ford in south Texas and the Wolfcamp and Spraberry shale formations in the Permian Basin led to an energy renaissance. Now more than half the rigs in the country are in Texas, and 563 of those — more than half the rigs in the state — are in the Permian, according to the Baker Hughes rig count. For places like Midland and Odessa, built on oil, dependent on oil and obsessed with the stuff, this was the boom they'd been praying for since the big bust in the 1980s.
But there's always a price. With prosperity comes inflation. Rental costs have soared along with the larger paychecks for some and the billions of dollars invested by oil companies. Odessa is the second-fastest-growing metro area in the country, and Midland is third, according to a U.S. Census Bureau population study. People have been flocking to the region, drawn by the promise of wealth and plenty amid one of the biggest oil booms in memory. Some are finding the modern-day American dream of overnight affluence, but the promise of oil doesn't always pan out. More people means more competition for jobs and places to live and increasing pressure on decaying local infrastructure. The definition of "American middle class" has always been vague, but it has become increasingly difficult to remain a part of that class on top of the Permian Basin if you aren't in the oil industry. People grasping the bottom rungs of the middle class have found themselves slipping, unable to keep ahold.
When the boom really started taking off in 2011, Erika Chavez, director of Odessa Links, the lead agency in the Odessa Homeless Coalition, was constantly on the phone, handling calls from people begging for help to stop evictions or looking for government housing (the wait list is currently six months to two years long). "People think that because there's a boom, no one is struggling, but for people who aren't in oil, it's very hard," she says.
She has seen two and three families living in single-family apartments, and shelter officials have reported cases of families living in cars. These people aren't even a part of the annual homeless count. They make too much money to qualify for aid, according to government standards, but they don't make enough to cover rent and bills, and there's little help for them.
As Ed Hirs, an economics professor at the University of Houston, puts it: "You'd best be a heart surgeon or an oncologist if you want to live out there and you aren't in the industry." There are increases in pay, but in some situations they aren't enough to close the cost-of-living gap created by inflation. People can work at fast-food joints making $16 an hour and still not be able to afford to live in the area.
Renee Kan, a homelessness specialist with ECISD, has seen the same thing. She even had a school counselor in her office one day a few months ago. The woman's husband had taken a job in the oil industry, but the company folded a few weeks after they arrived and the family was abruptly left homeless. "These are people you see every day and they look like everyone else, but they go home and it's a different story," she says. It's a new type of poverty, one that evades easy definition, says Linda Hamblin of the Midland Homeless Coalition. These aren't people who are simply poor. They are people who heard about the boom and came to town hoping for work, and they are people who have lived on top of the Permian Basin their entire lives, and the thing they have in common is they are barely getting by.